The gulf between the affluent and the ordinary, the careless and the careful, the destroyers and the nurturers, gets a run through the wringer in one comically tense dinner party, in Miguel Arteta’s social critique Beatriz at Dinner.
In Los Angeles, Beatriz (Salma Hayek) works as an holistic massage therapist at a cancer clinic; she’s a spiritual, empathic soul, keenly attuned to the suffering of people and animals. Her car breaks down on a side job — providing a pre-party massage for Cathy (Connie Britton) at her oceanside mansion — and Cathy invites her to stay. The other guests include Cathy’s uptight husband (David Warshofsky); an up-and-coming business couple (Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny); and the internationally famous real-estate developer Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his third wife (Amy Landecker).
Strutt is a braying ass, and everybody cheerfully goes along with his mildly offensive behavior. But Beatriz pushes back, querying Strutt about his projects and their impacts on people and environments, and sensing — in her woo-woo way — that he is a familiar malevolent force. (“I know you,” she tells him, while struggling to articulate how.) The booze continues to flow, Cathy’s attempts to smooth over the awkwardness get strained, and Strutt purposefully provokes Beatriz, taking her disdain for proof of his superiority.
The film is written by Mike White, who collaborated with Arteta on Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl, and it bears the hallmark of his unique cringe-y wit. Strutt reads a list of joke titles for his autobiography — “Life Is a Game and Guess Who Won,” “Get Out of My Way, Asshole” — and everybody laughs because they are actually true.
Beatriz is enjoyable in its manner — the actors are great, and it’s fun watching the characters’ “polite” masks slip. Yet, it feels obvious — too simply good vs. evil, without any shades of gray — and not as provocative as it wants to be. (White’s HBO series Enlightened tackled similar themes and offered wonderfully complicated characters.) And tonally, Beatriz is slightly off: The sharpness of the satire is undercut by a strident and eventually defeating earnestness.