She’s a selfless woman of color, a massage therapist and healer who works with cancer patients—so attuned to nature, she keeps a rescue goat in her apartment. He’s a toxic, filthy rich, white, male real estate developer with the morals of a jackal, who thinks nothing of displacing entire communities and ecosystems with his gigantic global building projects. What happens when their worlds collide at a dinner party?
That’s the setup for Beatriz at Dinner. But while it talks a good game in the preview trailer, it can’t quite rise to the challenge of its premise. This third collaboration between screenwriter Mike White and director Miguel Arteta (after Chuck and Buck, and The Good Girl) is all about the meticulous construction of these two opposite worlds, and setting them on the road to confrontation. But all the filmmakers’ credibility is used up establishing this premise. Once that’s done, the movie loses steam, and starts flailing around in search of a conclusion.
A profoundly de-glamorized Salma Hayek stars as Beatriz, a Mexican native from a tiny village who immigrated to California as a child, to be raised by her grandmother. A practitioner of reiki, tai-chi, massage, and other healing arts, she works with patients at a Los Angeles cancer center, and also chugs around in her dilapidated old car to private clients. Beatriz believes that people with “unfinished business” in one life come back in another form to make amends. A vegetarian, she’s so empathetic with the natural world that she says she can “feel the pain” of dead animals.
One of her clients, Cathy (Connie Britton), is a society wife in a ritzy gated community in Newport Beach. Cathy’s teenage daughter was a cancer patient for a while, where she and her mother both bonded with Beatriz; Cathy credits Beatriz with saving her daughter’s life. So when Beatriz’ car conks out in her driveway, Cathy is happy to invite Beatriz to stay for dinner while waiting for her mechanic to arrive.
But it’s not just any dinner. Cathy’s husband is a contractor whose biggest client, real estate mogul Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), is the guest of honor. Arriving with his third wife in a chauffeur-driven Lincoln SUV, Strutt (as you can tell from his name) is a smug peacock, proud of his shady business practices—like defoliating “protected” lands before he gets permits to develop, so there’s nothing left to protect. His philosophy is “the world is dying . . . so you might as well enjoy yourself.”
Strutt’s sycophantic young lawyer and his wife (Jay Duplass and Chloe Sevigny) round out the guest list, alcohol is consumed, and agendas are revealed. At first, everybody ignores deferential Beatriz, until Strutt, assuming she’s part of the staff, asks her to refresh his drink. The gulf between these two worlds is underscored when Cathy’s tale of her daughter’s cancer scare makes the other women so uncomfortable, they quickly switch the conversation to a “reality” TV star, whose travails are much more real to them.
Screenwriter White is accomplished in the cinema of discomfort, and there are times you can’t bear to look at the screen as the characters attempt to cope—or not—with an increasingly embarrassing situation. But the expected clash-of-the-titans between saintly Beatriz and deplorable Strutt never quite materializes. For one thing, they’re written as such extreme polar opposites, we know they are never going to have a dialogue. And as soon as the filmmakers figure this out, there’s a great deal of floundering around in search of an exit strategy.
Unfortunately, the one they finally come up with makes no sense in terms of everything we’ve been told about the character, or even the simple mechanics of how things work in daily life. We’re left to view the story as metaphor, but since any similarity between the odious Strutt and the current blowhard-in-chief is entirely intentional, the movie doesn’t even satisfy on that level. It seems to address the chasm between the top 2 percent and the rest of us without offering either solutions or catharsis.
BEATRIZ AT DINNER
**1/2 (out of four)
With Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, and Connie Britton. Written by Mike White. Directed by Miguel Arteta. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated R. 83 minutes.