The dinner party is fertile ground for movies about a handful of characters whose unspoken biases bubble to the surface. From “The Exterminating Angel” to “The Celebration,” this longstanding subgenre is a precise means of examining society at large. In the hands of regular collaborators Miguel Arteta and Mike White, it’s a window into the oppressive forces of wealth and privilege, uniquely suited for our troubled times.
So it goes “Beatriz at Dinner,” an engaging if at times heavy-handed drama about characters from vastly different sociopolitical backgrounds facing their differences. As directed by Arteta from White’s screenplay, its appeal largely stems from a nuanced turn by Salma Hayek as a Mexican immigrant confronting an avaricious hotel mogul (John Lithgow), whose corporate mindset and scandal-ridden career make him an unsubtle avatar for Donald Trump. But Arteta and White handle this incendiary material with a gentle touch, and the result provokes strong ideas about the clash of values in modern America.
While the material occasionally turns blunt, “Beatriz” gives Hayek her best leading role in years, playing the titular lead as a wide-eyed and passionate woman whose warm attitude is tested over the course of a tense evening. Having settled on the outskirts of Los Angeles after immigrating to the U.S. years earlier, Beatriz leads an apparently comfortable, if lonely, existence as a health practitioner. But her stability can’t shield her from the cruel biases of ignorant characters.
The plaintive opening sets the tone for a soulful portrait, with Beatriz starting her day at home with her menagerie of pets before heading to a job that finds her working with a range of clients. During a massage appointment, her well-heeled client Cathy (Connie Britton) invites Beatriz over for a dinner party in which she’s immediately out of her element, struggling to interact with Cathy’s remote husband Grant (David Warhofsky) and the pompous real estate developer Doug (Lithgow) who joins them. The group is rounded out by a younger couple (Jay Duplass and Chloe Sevigny, in underdeveloped roles). It doesn’t take long for the good-natured Beatriz to find herself awkwardly shoehorned into an evening with privileged white people oblivious to their sheltered lives.
The moment Doug mistakes Beatriz for a housemaid as the couples engage in pre-dinner drinks, it’s clear where this is going. Over dinner-table chatter, Beatriz picks up on hints of the loquacious Doug’s history with hotel construction in low-income areas, including the impoverished Mexican neighborhood where she once lived. A few glasses of wine later, and she’s ready to talk.
Hovering between suspense and high-society satire, “Beatriz at Dinner” mainly provides a theatrical showcase for these veteran actors as a slow-burn tension builds. When Beatriz tries to reason with Doug about his lack of empathy for the disenfranchised people affected by his land grabs, he replies, “The world doesn’t need your feelings,” a remark that leaves the empathetic character in a state of shock. Hayek initially endows Beatriz with blithe naiveté, which gradually turns into melancholy as she recognizes the power struggle that finds her cowering beneath a ruthless capitalist. Her eyes are constantly searching for answers: Can she reason with this man, or simply lament his cruelty?
The brightly lit mansion injects “Beatriz at Dinner” with a marvelous contrast, as Beatriz alienates herself from the rest of the dinner guests and haunts the expansive rooms at odds with her surroundings. Arteta positions Hayek in remarkable contrast to the pristine vapidity around her: Beatriz is physically smaller than the other guests, and sets apart from their airy existence with her earthy pronouncements (“the Earth needs old souls,” she says at one point). As the evening progresses, she recedes into her sorrows.
While the movie provides a fine showcase for the actress, it falls short of fleshing out the people around her as much more than cartoonish socialites, with Lithgow’s Doug being the worst offender. Prone to crude, self-aggrandizing pronouncements, he delivers his lines with a frozen glare and evil grin, as if rehearsing for a role in Trump’s cabinet. “I have opinions, and because I have money, people listen,” he says, which is the deepest observation he can muster.
“Are you for real?” Beatriz asks, and the question dangles there for much of the movie. Is “Beatriz at Dinner” for real or merely content to toy with metaphor? The answer lies somewhere in between. From “Star Maps” to “Cedar Rapids,” Arteta has consistently poked at the plights of marginalized characters, and Beatriz is a rich, grounded figure, but the inanity around her is hard to believe.
White’s script is well crafted as a grim chamber piece, but it falls short of developing its central tension beyond its initial implications. Instead, in what amounts to the writer-director pair’s most political movie, the plot echoes Beatriz’s confusion over a world seemingly blind to her goodwill. It’s a tragic statement unique to modern times that feels incomplete, but that itself speaks to its bleak topicality.
“Beatriz at Dinner” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.