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Non-fiction

Demolishing ‘Beatriz at Dinner’

Who can hook me up with Salma Hayek’s phone number? I need to call her right quick.

No wait — I need to have a few other folks present when this conversation takes place because they all need to answer the questions I have.

Or maybe it’s more that they all need to listen.

The best place for this conversation would probably be on the stoop of my old house back East. My Jersey folk know what I’m talking about — pop down to the corner to the store and come back with your brown-bagged pint or can, a soda or whatever your pleasure. If the law drives by, just put the bag behind your back and wave. He’s probably the one who lives around the corner and since you’re on my stoop, he’s not gonna stop because he knows I won’t allow any nonsense. If you see us standing more in the street than on the stoop and our hands are going, don’t panic — it’s just how we roll. We get a little excited from time to time.

So I’d like Salma, Mike White, Miguel Arteta, and at least one of the producers. Oh, and somebody from Arclight Theatres. My first comment would be something like, ‘Hey — y’all know each of you need to pay ma man back for the tickets and popcorn he bought, right? And I don’t mean just the ticket price. Nope. All of ya need to pony up. For me too since it took so long to get to the front of the ticket line that we had to go to the bar to wait for the next showing after the one we were there for (which means we had to have a drink) and Osiris (my current ride, but that’s another story for another time) needs to eat. I drove out to Pasadena, y’all. So pass off. Cash only, please, for the both of us.’

What had happened was an entire theatre full of people sat quietly as the screen went black and the credits started to roll. No one moved, no one stood up as soon as the scene started to fade in preparation for making the dash out the door (because you know how quick the line at the toilet forms after the movie, right?). I think we were all stunned, having expected a very different outcome. I won’t offer any spoilers but I warn you: if we were having this conversation on the stoop, I’d be breaking every part of this movie.

Before I offer this brief bit of demolition, let me say that the NYT review and the Vulture review are probably the best of the few that I read. HuffPost’s was rather … um … is ‘ew’ a full description? That one made me want to pull Salma to the side and ask her did we actually see the movie she thought she made.

Here are three of the big problems:

One: This film is labeled a comedy.

Two: Basically this from Emily Yoshida at the Vulture:

The ambiguous ending will be infuriating for some, and while I didn’t need Arteta and White to go out with fireworks (that’s not really the mode they’re working in) something more character-driven might have felt more satisfying. There is such a wealth here, after all — not only with Hayek and Lithgow’s diametrically opposed figures, but in the superficially generous but blinkered Cathy, and Chloë Sevigny and Jay Duplass as a younger, careerist couple with at least a toe still on the side of decency. Beatriz at Dinner may not stick the landing, but its central clash between healers and destroyers maintains its choke hold long after the credits have rolled.

Dig it: ‘… something more character-driven might have felt more satisfying’. Ya think?!

And why not fireworks (cue Jersey hand talk in the street)? Plus, that was the weakest choke hold ever witnessed, outside the WWF wrestling ring. Just sayin’.

I get it though. This wasn’t a Jersey thing. It was a SoCal thing. Mike describes himself this way:

I grew up here in LA, and I wasn’t from a rich family but I went to a school with a lot of kids whose families were wealthy, and I just remember observing these sort of richer families and the way these dinner parties presented this very cheerful kind of “best face forward” type of life, and then underneath it was this kind of casual racism or casual apathy or a certain kind of ugliness that was disguised in this perfect façade. And so to me it felt like something I’ve been trying to find the right vehicle or right sort of constellation of characters to help do my version of this dinner party from hell.

He wasn’t from a rich family (or if the other articles to be believed he wasn’t from LA either. I think I read that he was born and raised in Pasadena. That would be like my South Jersey self saying I was from New York. They are right down the road a piece from each other but that don’t make ’em the same place. But I digress …) but he went to school with kids from ‘these sort of richer families‘ and saw the conversations and such that he wrote into the script play out in real time. Right (cue Jersey hand talk in the street again): basically he’s made a distinction between ‘rich’ and ‘wealthy’, with ‘wealthy’ being higher on the food chain.

For those of us down the hill a bit — to coin a SoCal description — they’re the same thing, rich and wealthy.

Here’s the deal. There was nothing funny about this film because Salma’s character, while intentioned as the healing angel who is incredulous at the conversations the rich jerks have whilst kissing the hindparts of their ‘richer’ boss, is the tragic latina, a new-age version of the tragic mullato/a. The ‘house help’ included a young Latina (in ordinary dress), a young man of European background (leader of the crew, in preppy clothes — not quite a concierge but I guess that’s where they were going with it), and an older Latina (in a maid outfit. Yeah, we peeped all that unspoken mess). Salma’s character has no interaction with the young Latina other than an exchange that spanned about five words. Her interaction with the older Latina did not come across as authentic either and spanned maybe 10 words. And as Yoshida says, the ending … man, that ending (cue Jersey hands in the street for the third time).

Three: If you’ve paused in reading this missive to pop over to any of the review links, you’ll note the reference to Trump. Okay, I’ll give it to you, Mike, Miguel, that the rich folks in this movie and their attitudes offer a less-than-satirical example of what some in their financial bracket talk about at dinner parties. Chances are six feet high and rising that these are conversations that Trump and his er, friends, have had around their tables when the cameras and microphones are off. Probably when they are on, too. Because they don’t care.

However, Salma’s character should have been anything but tragic. In the current climate of unrest about the US gubmint, at least a nod to a Chicano/a movement would have been appropriate if the idea was to do something different with a film.

Instead, something more sinister seemed afoot: the ‘something different with a film’ in this case was a suggestion that hopelessness is the only response from down-the-hill people, from Global Majority people, from liberal people, from progressive people. That making a statement to recognize even the possibility of a movement is not even a thing. Or if it is a thing, it would be seen as sinister or as ‘fireworks’, which makes it somehow not what should be portrayed. That sitting there, taking verbal slurs without so much as a ‘What the hell did you just say?’ is okay.

But I guess I got it wrong.

I guess those of us who enjoy a good bit of hand-talk whilst we sip our beverage of choice on the stoop and maybe raise our voices a bit because we’re excited to engage in conscious conversations were not the intended audience for this film. Maybe I should be honored that we were permitted entry in the first place, is that it? Can you see my Jersey hands? Because they are going.

I don’t have a stoop anymore, just a coupla chairs along the front walkway. I have more of them and can pull them around — if any of you know Mike, Miguel, Salma, or the folks from Arclight, tell ’em to stop by. I’ll pour some whiskey and we’ll set a spell. Talk this thing out. Don’t mind my Jersey hands because that’s just part of the package. But when you leave, maybe we’ll have a plan for us to collaborate with you on your next go at a similar topic.

And don’t leave your wallets in the car when you get here. We are still looking to get our pay-back, yo.

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