Beatriz at Dinner (Roadside Attractions, R)

Beatriz at Dinner is too on the nose to be a great film.

It’s an old saying that while New York City contains 8 million people with 8 million stories, Los Angeles includes 10 million people but they all have the same story. That’s the kind of thing a New Yorker would say, of course, because Los Angeles (city, county, or MSA) is also a place of great diversity. Beatriz at Dinner, written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, drives that point home through the chance meeting of two representatives of very different social strata in the City of Angels.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a Mexican immigrant who works as a massage therapist and all-around holistic healer and believer in woo. When her car breaks down near the seaside mansion of one of her wealthy clients, Cathy (Connie Britton) invites her to stay for dinner while she waits for a mechanic to arrive. Cathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky) thinks it’s not a great idea, because the dinner is really about a business deal, and Beatriz has nothing in common with anyone else who will be attending. He’s right, but if common sense prevailed, we would have no movie. Instead, this invitation sets the stage for a confrontation between cultures that is more interesting than you might expect, given the thundering obviousness of the setup.

John Lithgow plays the evening’s big bad, an obnoxious real estate developer (and Grant’s boss) named Doug Strutt, who has much in common with a well-known real estate developer turned politician who also has five letters in his surname. Also on hand are a younger corporate couple played by Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny, and Strutt’s third wife (Amy Landecker); they, along,with Cathy and Grant, spend much of the evening reacting to the fireworks between Doug and Beatriz, the latter having had enough to drink that she has no inclination to defer to a smirking, self-important boob.

Lithgow is quite good, but Beatriz at Dinner is really Hayek’s movie. Her character’s belief system seems to be “whatever works,” as evidenced by the Buddha and the image of the Virgin Mary on her home alter, along with pictures of her parents and a recently-deceased goal. She believes in reincarnation, which comes in handy, plot-wise, as motivation for numerous flashbacks to her beautiful Mexican homeland. Beatriz works with cancer patients as well as the rich and entitled, and she’s as relentlessly de-glammed as the other characters are carefully decked out in the latest corporate chic.

Beatriz at Dinner flirts with the uncanny valley between being some kind of metaphorical poem (Wyatt Garfield’s beautiful cinematography goes a long way to making this interpretation work) and being a social satire grounded in present-day reality, with the strength of the performances keeping it afloat.  Although Strutt is this film’s obvious target, White and Arteta are making a broader point, which is that individuals like Strutt can do what they do because have many friends and colleagues who tolerate and support them, normalizing their behavior and enjoying the lifestyle that comes with such complicity. Sad to say, if they refused to go along, those friends and colleagues would face neither exile nor a firing squad, nor even starvation, although they might have to pass on the seaside mansion and closet bulging with designer clothes.

Beatriz at Dinner is too on the nose to be a great film, but it’s still thought-provoking and entertaining, and could not be more timely given the current political situation in America. White deserves special mention for this choice of character names, including “Strutt” (self-explanatory) and “Beatriz” (also a character in Luis Bunuel’s house-party satire The Exterminating Angel). | Sarah Boslaugh

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