The present political climate probably can’t be divorced from one’s reaction to this latest film by writer Mike White and director Miguel Arteta, who earlier collaborated on “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl.” But topicality isn’t the sole distinction of “Beatriz at Dinner,” which joins their earlier two collaborations in being not just provocative but also genuinely entertaining.
The title character, played by Salma Hayek, is a gentle but determined L.A. masseuse and spiritual healer who is feeling disconnected from the friends she long ago left behind in Mexico, especially since one of the animals she keeps—a goat—has just been killed by a nasty neighbor, violating her deep feeling about empathy among species After a visit to assist patients at a cancer center, she drives to the gated estate of former client Cathy (Connie Britton), whose daughter she had once treated. There her car breaks down, prompting Cathy to invite her to stay for a dinner that she and her initially skeptical husband Grant (David Warshofsky) are having with a business partner, real estate mogul Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his wife (Amy Landecker). The other guests are Grant’s employee Alex (Jay Duplass), a lawyer who was instrumental in concluding Grant and Doug’s joint project to build a shopping mall, and his wife (Chloe Sevigny).
Strutt is obviously a Trumpian-era personality, the heedlessly macho, take-no-prisoners, self-made businessman who wants to start preparing the land for the mall quickly, before any protestors can mount resistance to construction. Grant and Alex are sycophantic in his presence, obviously anxious to keep his good will, and all the women are deferential to the men—except, of course, for Hayek, who finds the greedily privileged attitude they represent offensive. She comes from what is usually called a “different world,” and suspects that Strutt might have been the very man who devastated her home town with a hotel project that proved a nightmare to the locals.
But it’s not merely his business practices she finds repugnant. When they first meet, he simply assumes that she’s a member of the caterer’s staff, and even after that misunderstanding is cleared up, he offhandedly inquires whether she had entered the country legally. Later, he gloats over bringing down a rhino during an African safari, and when he happily shares photos of him posing with the dead animal, she explodes in a fury at his callousness. The others are apologetic about her conduct, of course: obsequiousness to such a titan is part of their genetic makeup.
Strutt, on the other hand, is accustomed to angry protests against him, but finding opposition in such a private context takes him aback. Even when he tries to be accommodating, he comes off a coarsely condescending, and though he appreciates the shoulder rub Beatriz spontaneously gives him and a song she impulsively sings, it doesn’t affect his haughtily quizzical attitude toward her. He simply can’t understand her (and doesn’t want to bother trying), and she believes she understands him all too well (and is frustrated by her inability to do anything about him).
One could complain that White’s script simplifies matters considerably, though it’s far subtler than the one derived from Herman Koch’s novel in the recent Richard Gere film “The Dinner,” in which a meal was also the setting for a meltdown. And Arteta draws performances that mostly avoid excess, particularly from Hayek, who brings an almost ethereal quality to Beatriz, and Lithgow, who tones down the preening arrogance we know he’s capable of to a more manageable level, giving a potential caricature a touch of humanity. Ashley Fenton’s production design, Christina Blackaller’s costumes and Wyatt Garfield’s cinematography all combine to distinguish between the simplicity of Beatriz’s life and the pampered elegance of the other characters, and Mark Mothersbaugh’s subdued score adds to the mood of disquiet.
As so often happens, the last act of the film raises doubts, bringing some extreme action that generates suspense—and might even play to some viewers emotionally—while employing a dramatic device that seems cheap every time one encounters it. Yet it’s difficult to shake off the impact of this little picture, which comes off as very much a fable for our time—even if an imperfect one.