‘Beatriz at Dinner’: Film Review | Sundance 2017

Artfully arranged, but the crudeness of the satire sometimes sticks in the throat.

Salma Hayek stars as a health worker compelled to break bread with John Lithgow's Trumpian capitalist in the latest feature from director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White.

Salma Hayek offers a performance rich in stillness, tenderness and dignity in Beatriz at Dinner, a laudably well-intentioned but way too on-the-nose comedy-drama. Director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White collaborated recently on TV’s Enlightened, but this is their first feature together since they made the scrappy Sundance favorites The Good Girl (2002) and Chuck & Buck (2000) back in the day. Older and more established now, they’ve assembled a fine cast and crew to tell this pointed parable about haves and have-nots forced to mix socially with disastrous results. Although this may contain the best performance of Hayek’s career, and an act of violence in the third act will be deliciously appealing to the basest instincts of every angry liberal at this particular post-inauguration moment, it’s still a flawed work, too broad and scattershot to skewer its deserving targets with the precision necessary for the task.

Beatriz (Hayek), a middle-aged divorcee from Mexico living in Los Angeles, works as a masseuse/healer at a clinic for cancer patients and sees private clients on the side. A nurturing soul who seems haunted by some kind of terrible loss in her past, she’s so protective of her pets she keeps her goat in a pen in her own bedroom at night to protect it from a possibly murderous, goat-hating neighbor.

At the spacious if somewhat soulless Newport Beach mansion owned by Cathy (Connie Britton) and building mogul Grant (David Warshofsky), Beatriz gives Cathy a massage and gets an update on Cathy’s newly college-bound daughter Tara, whom Beatriz cared for when the girl had cancer in her teens. Relations between the two women are genuinely warm and friendly, so when Beatriz’s car won’t start, Cathy insists on inviting Beatriz to join them for the dinner party they’re holding that evening while she waits for a mechanic friend to show up.

Grant has serious misgivings about bringing Beatriz to the table since one of the guests is power client Douglas Strutt (John Lithgow), a famously opinionated, unabashedly capitalist hotel and golf-course magnate whose resemblance to Donald Trump is surely not accidental. That said, Lithgow’s bragging, boorish captain of industry, who asks Beatriz if she entered the country legally, boasts about having shot a rhinoceros on safari in Africa and couldn’t give a damn if his ventures poison the environment and ruin lives, still comes across as more savvy and likable than the newly sworn-in POTUS.

Occupying the other spots at the table are Strutt’s much younger third wife (Amy Landecker from Transparent), dressed in exactly the right shade of garish aqua and too much mascara, and Grant’s junior colleague Alex (Jay Duplass, also from Transparent) and his elegant wife (Chloe Sevigny), the last two obsequious social climbers dressed in matching shades of beige that also match the mansion’s walls.

Inevitably, Strutt at first mistakes Beatriz for a maid and asks her to refill his drink, and from there the social awkwardness just keeps getting worse as the evening wears on, the hunting stories are trotted out and an increasingly drunk Beatriz cannot contain her disgust at Strutt’s vileness. It’s to White's and Arteta’s credit, however, that they don’t make their title protagonist an eco-warrior secular saint, although Cathy does keep trying to canonize her in conversation. Damaged, humorless and clearly a few goji berries short of the full smoothie, Beatriz is troubled, and putting her in the same room with Strutt is as smart as playing with sparklers at a broken gas pump. And yet the final act feels like a cop-out, resolved with a magical-realist sleight of hand that cheats the viewer of a proper resolution while pushing the characters to the limits of credibility.

Given the dinner-party premise, the film is expectedly heavy on talk, but Arteta avoids monologue monotony by cutting away frequently to his ensemble’s faces in repose as they listen to the others. Each and every one masterfully deploys a full arsenal of subtle moues, grimaces and side-eye glances to hint at private feelings that may or may not be in accord with the consensus around the table. Britton’s eye twitches and fluttering gestures of horror as her party starts to go wrong are a thing of beauty to behold, as are Landecker’s embarrassed eye rolls and Sevigny's and Duplass' impish smirks.  Even John Early as the simpering caterer seems to be snickering inwardly as the evening implodes.

However, as written, these super-elite 0.00001 percenters are straw figures ready to be burnt at the stake of White's and Arteta’s righteous indignation. Even if one agrees with the disgust they feel at this privileged, entitled class’ complacency and complicity, a little more subtlety and a more nuanced approach to the dynamics of this culture clash would have made the film that little bit more effective.

Mark Mothersbaugh's pensive, aching score nevertheless represents a major plus point. So does Wyatt Garfield's stunning cinematography, milking the golden hues of the Californian magic hour for all its worth and then sculpting rich, textural nocturnes for the final stretch. 

Production companies: A Bron Studios/Killer Films production in association with Creative Wealth Media
Cast: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, Chloe Sevigny, David Warshofsky, John Early, Enrique Castillo, Soledad St Hilaire, Amelia Borella, Sean O'Bryan, Natalia Abelleyra
Director: Miguel Arteta
Screenwriter: Mike White
Producers: Aaron L. Gilbert, Pamela Koffler, David Hinojosa, Christine Vachon
Executive producers: Miguel Arteta, Jason Cloth, Richard McConnell, Andy Pollack, Alan Simpson, Lewis M. Hendler, Brad Feinstein, Jose Tamez
Co-executive producers: Steven Thibault, Brenda Gilbert, Garrick Dion
Co-producers: Fiona Walsh Heinz, William B Macomber
Director of photography: Wyatt Garfield
Production designer: Ashley Fenton
Costume designer: Christina Blackaller
Editor: Jay Deuby
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Music supervisor: Margaret Yen
Casting: Joanna Colbert, Meredith Tucker
Sales: WME
No rating, 83 minutes