Filmmaker Miguel Arteta is always worth watching, particularly when armed with a screenplay by Mike White. Their third collaboration, “Beatriz at Dinner,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is now making a modest theatrical run.
Given the outcome of the November 2016 presidential election, the movie’s simple premise, a moral and ethical showdown between a spiritually-inclined healer/massage therapist (Salma Hayek) and a rapacious business mogul (John Lithgow), sets the stage for all manner of timely social and political commentary, as well as for the cringe-inducing discomfort that the Arteta-White team embraces.
Hayek’s title character, who provides her services to the wealthy Kathy (Connie Britton), is asked to stay for a carefully pre-planned dinner party when Beatriz’s car won’t start following an appointment at Kathy’s opulent Newport Beach spread. Kathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky), nervous about an impending deal involving Alex (Jay Duplass) and Lithgow’s Doug Strutt, reluctantly extends his hospitality to Beatriz. Shortly after the VIP guest arrives, Strutt asks Beatriz to refill his bourbon (“You were hovering. I just figured you were part of the staff.”) and the awkwardness commences.
White and Arteta did not know who would win that election last fall, but “Beatriz at Dinner” has been accurately tagged as a film of its time. Unsurprisingly, Arteta’s sympathies align principally with Beatriz, a character whose careful navigation of English and Spanish-speaking settings alludes to her knowledge of class, race, and privilege (Arteta interestingly and deliberately omits some subtitles).
But despite steady, condescending praise from Kathy, Beatriz is far from a saintly miracle worker composed of light and energy. Hayek likes Beatriz’s flaws and edges, and she is all the more interesting for her “fatiguing sanctimoniousness” (as Melissa Anderson put it).
Just as good is Lithgow’s perfectly monikered developer. Strutt, so accustomed to being served and to getting his way, shares a number of traits with the current resident of the White House, but the filmmakers and the performer do a remarkable thing: they offer Strutt glimmers of humanity that prevent the caricature that could so easily be built from the man’s narcissism, self-importance, casual racism, and domineering discourse. Even the revelation of Strutt’s ultimate rich white asshole signifier -- a cell phone photo of the rhinoceros trophy he bagged on an African safari -- is transcended by Lithgow’s skill.
Both the real and false endings of “Beatriz at Dinner” will take some viewers by surprise, and each sequence raises questions that may not have been completely addressed by the fascinating stretches of dialogue preceding them. Given the movie’s tidy 83-minute running time, it is possible that something more might have been explored (especially given the leisureliness of the film’s dreamy bookending device).
Chloe Sevigny, as Alex’s spouse Shannon, is especially underutilized.
Arteta’s film succeeds, however, in its stubbornness. We are not necessarily called upon to see things strictly from the perspective of Beatriz or the perspective of Doug Strutt. And the way those irreconcilable differences are treated by Arteta, White, and the ensemble recommend “Beatriz at Dinner” for anyone who wonders about our future.
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