Film Review: Beatriz at Dinner

Satire may be, as that pundit said, what closes on Saturday night, but this smart, biting and touching movie could well capture its own canny, receptive audience starved for an American film with real substance.
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In answer to the recurring question in many moviegoers’ minds—Why don’t American movies ever seriously address what is going on in our country now?—comes the bracing Beatriz at Dinner, with a wonderful Mark Mothersbaugh score. Salma Hayek, in her finest performance to date, plays the title role, a Mexican holistic massage therapist in Los Angeles, who’s having a hard time of it. A divorced woman of some mystery as to her exact background, she lives alone, with her major solace coming from her pet goats. When one of them is killed by a ragingly resentful neighbor, she is devastated but must continue her rounds at the alternative cancer-care facility where she works, and massage private clients as well.

One of them is the wealthy Cathy (Connie Britton), whom she tends to in her opulent Newport Beach estate. There’s a special bond between the women, as Beatriz tended to her adolescent daughter during her chemotherapy. When Beatriz’s beat-up Volkswagen refuses to start, Cathy invites her to stay for dinner, which has been planned for a while with an important business associate of her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky). This honcho partner is Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), who, with his incessant, ruthless and shady deals and real estate holdings, resembles no one so much as our current President. Given his ongoing agenda vis-à-vis Beatriz’s basic personal philosophy of nature/nurture, fireworks are to be expected, and indeed explosiveness results.

Reunited after 15 years, the Chuck and Buck/Good Girl team of screenwriter Mike White and director Miguel Arteta again bring us fresh audacity. Their wonderfully provocative, deeply smart film unfolds methodically, with an emphasis on behavioral observation. At times, this quality becomes almost excruciating to watch, as you see how Cathy, her husband and their dinner guests, who also include Strutt’s wife (Amy Landecker) and another, perfect yuppie couple (Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny), all comfortably ensconced in white wealth and privilege, act towards Beatriz, with her irrepressible warmth and earthiness. This impromptu guest may be nothing more than a hospitable last-minute addition to the party, with that shuddersome caveat, “She’s more than just the help, she’s a friend,” but her strong character and frank voicing of decidedly differing opinions render her here as a complete alien in very alien territory.

I have rarely seen a film in which social discomfort was used so effectively to drive home its point, at times evoking the nervous kind of chatty suspense of which Buñuel was such a master. The evening comes to a real head with Strutt’s bragging of having bagged a rhinoceros, as he passes his cellphone around so everyone can view that carnage. This triggers an explosion by Beatriz, in which she excoriates Strutt in no uncertain terms. Calming down, she decides to just retire for the night, somewhat ashamed of herself, but then, like a recurring Republican’s nightmare, she returns, to literally sing for her supper. The melancholy song she sings in Spanish briefly soothes the fury she has instilled in Strutt & Co., but even as husbands gently fondle their wives in appreciation of such ethnic flavor, the condescension oozes.

Hayek is a real revelation here. There’s a new stillness in her and a gravity that is at once arresting and quite beautiful, although she presents herself utterly deglamorized, sans makeup, in baggy comfort clothes and with some none-too-flattering bangs. The endlessly do-gooding and humorless Beatriz could be a self-righteous pain in the ass, but such is the actress’ commitment and immersion in the role—although herself now married in real life to French tycoon François-Henri Pinault—she emerges as truly saintly, in the best definition of that word.

Lithgow is also very good, perfectly cast as a colossally entitled jerk, and obviously luxuriating in his villainy, but it is somehow hard to completely loathe him, for an almost unintentional-seeming humanity manages to emanate from him, albeit in fitful sparks. He looks at Beatriz as if she’s a unicorn and seems slightly but sincerely intrigued by her, for all their combativeness, if only he had the time or real inclination to understand her. Britton is excellent, maneuvering her bleeding-heart liberal of a character from total acceptance of Beatriz (even as her posh friends recoil from the Mexican’s greeting them with a hug) to the “painful” necessity of having to 86 her completely from her house. Warshofsky, Landecker, Duplass and Sevigny all seem to be having a high old time, playing designer-label-garbed a-holes of varying stripes.

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