Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, David Warshofsky, Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, John Early
Director: Miguel Arteta
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Rating: R for Verbal Knifeplay
Release Date: June 9, 2017 (Limited)
What would you do if you have had a chance encounter with the person who represents all that you oppose? I imagine that many people would feel quite strongly when responding to this question but also that it would produce a number of disparate, potentially conflicting answers. Beatriz at Dinner, the latest collaboration from the Chuck & Buck team of writer Mike White (School of Rock, HBO’s Enlightened) and director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids), fundamentally understands this tension, with conviction in its ideals and uncertainty about how to live by them.
Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a goat-owning masseuse/healer who makes a house call to her wealthy client Cathy (Connie Britton). When her car breaks down, she finds herself stuck at Cathy and her husband’s Grant’s (David Warshofsky) fancy dinner party. Cathy is happy to have Beatriz there, as she considers her family ever since she helped her daughter through cancer treatment. But Beatriz is culturally light years away from client’s friends and colleagues. Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker are right in their cluelessly arrogant upper class wheelhouses. (Sample dialogue: “I love psychic stuff.”) And then there is real estate mogul Doug Strutt, brought to gloriously, hideously racist life by John Lithgow.
Comparisons between Strutt and a certain current world leader are inevitable, among perhaps both his detractors and his supporters. But it is worth noting that Lithgow’s performance is as far as can be from crudity, in terms of style if not so much substance. His default presence makes him a natural at playing oddly trustworthy authority figures. He has a hint of eccentricity – not so much that he ought to be dismissed, but just enough that he is allowed to get away with it. That reputation is ripe for subversion, as in the NBC sitcom Trial & Error, where his eccentricity verges on bumbling idiocy, or here, where it is a cover for plain evil.
While Lithgow’s performance is impressive in the most expected ways, Hayek’s is fascinating for how surprisingly, and occasionally even bafflingly, Beatriz behaves. But there are not really any logical inconsistencies here, as there is no blueprint for how to act in this situation. Beatriz believes that she recognizes Strutt as the developer who destroyed her Mexican community, and so she viciously chews him in front of the whole party. In this game of chess, she may have sacrificed her queen too early, but perhaps it is all part of her strategy. She bobs and weaves, offering up apologies, or feigning them, or mixing legitimate apologies in with lip service. In the meantime, she gathers up evidence to potentially prove Strutt’s misdeeds. But to what end? This is a man who boasts of skirting, or even running roughshod over, the law.
Responding to this moral vacuum requires counterintuitive behavior, which inspires a career-best performance from Hayek but puts the film on shaky narrative ground. The story ultimately becomes just as untethered as Beatriz, and accordingly it cannot really figure out how to conclude. Should it go in for the kill and ramp up the intensity, or should it settle for the moral victory? It offers up both versions, which is a little frustrating, but the straightforward viciousness is fun while it lasts.
Beatriz at Dinner is Recommended If You Like: Enlightened, Evil John Lithgow, Clapping Back
Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Aperitifs for Destruction