Beatriz at Dinner

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***1/2

Beatriz at Dinner may be a wisp of a movie—the credits roll at about the 70-minute mark—but it’s one that couldn’t feel more timely and tapped into the current zeitgeist of what it’s like to be a have or have not in contemporary America.

However, which of the two principal characters fits those descriptors may be a barometer for where audience sympathies lie. It’s also a movie that says that while we cannot, as a culture, put aside our political differences for the sake of socializing, we may be able to co-exist as good and evil often do.

In Miguel Arteta’s arresting new movie from an incisive screenplay by Mike White, a sly, forceful Salma Hayek is a California massage therapist and healer who becomes an unlikely dinner guest at a table of supercilious power brokers, including a high-profile, global real estate developer with a history of well-documented worker and environmental violations.

Beatriz (Hayek) is a salt-of-the-earth type who is close to nature and, in fact, lives with animals in a modest ranch home. As the picture opens, she grieves the death of her beloved pet goat before being called to the seaside mansion of client Cathy (Connie Britton), matriarch of a family whose daughter was nursed through cancer and back to health by Beatriz some years before.

Car trouble means Beatriz is stranded and becomes an uninvited guest at an important networking dinner also attended by Cathy’s husband (David Warshofsky), a young, jockeying lawyer (Jay Duplass), his supportive spouse (Chloe Sevigny) and the guest of honor, Doug Strutt (get it?).

Played with command by John Lithgow and a clear representation of unbridled capitalism, greed and a whole host of other Republican talking points, Strutt is on his third wife (Amy Landecker, effectively in deference) and the kind of guy who walks into a room and both wine, regaled partygoers and compliments begin flowing—all in his direction.

It doesn’t take long for sparks to fly. Beatriz, whom we initially suspect will be diminished, almost immediately begins a forceful assignation of perspective on a host of issues both interrupting and actively challenging the dismissive, boorishly offensive magnate.

Strutt in turn delivers an assault of dismissive micro-aggressions, questioning Beatriz’s citizenship status (and that of her family) and patronizations, wrongly sizing up his petite new acquaintance until it is clear that he has an articulate, passionate opponent as committed to her world view as he to his. In a terrific scene, Beatriz explains that she can feel the sickness of the world yet can’t see a way to heal it.

Discomfort ensues. The volume continues to get turned up. When Beatriz realizes that Strutt may have been responsible for the construction of an American mall in Mexico that displaced her family—and figures into her past—things take a radical turn.

Yet there’s more. After disrupting the parlor talk with progressive points of view on social issues and inserting herself into a love-fest around big game hunting before labeling Strutt “disgusting” for his bragging rights to a grisly photo, Beatriz is banned to an upstairs bedroom.

The message is clear—we like you when you work for us, and when you alleviate our aches and pains we might even seem like friends, but when it comes to your thoughts on the issues driving the world we all live in, you need to take a seat. But Beatriz soon returns, and the picture stops playing long enough to consider a logical, and quite surprising, solution to the divide between rivals.

The picture has a very fine feel for its locations, both the scaled-down milieu Beatriz calls home as well as its upscale mansion by the sea, a study in stark contrasts. And its depiction of elitism, informed by healthy dollops of disingenuous fawning, insincere jockeying and other types of ass kissing that define their interactions, is delivered by White in stinging, razor’s edge dialogue.

Some might say that Arteta’s movie is overly didactic and shooting fish in a barrel given the headlines pitting the Republican party against Latin American immigrants. But what transpires through that set-up—which could have been mined for sentiment or even sitcom laughs—is something more mysterious, reflective and altogether haunting.

Instead of the voluptuous confidence that is a hallmark for Mexican beauty Hayek, who once suppressed such and in doing so snagged a deserved Oscar nomination for Julie Taymor’s visually resplendent Frida, Hayek for the first time trades on her considerable, remarkable even, listening abilities an actor. As she sits at that table, Arteta gives considerable camera time to her thought process. We can see her internalizing and preparing to reply. It’s quite a performance.

Where Beatriz at Dinner ends up in its final scenes is up for interpretation.  But getting to them is, in my view, one of the summer’s great movie joys—meeting two people who though intense philosophical debate end up with a greater understanding; of what, I will leave for you to decide, but it’s a special picture.

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