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Beatriz at Dinner Review

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

Beatriz at Dinner poster

In literature, on stage and in the movies, there's a subgenre of social satire dealing with the unstable, unexpectedly confrontational dinner party. The setting offers the clever writer a chance to take on vast societal ills in a confined setting just begging for a little upheaval.

"Beatriz at Dinner" is the latest example. As written by Mike White ("School of Rock," HBO's "Enlightened") and directed by Miguel Arteta (whose work includes "The Good Girl," written by White), this smooth, compact 83-minute dark comedy of manners maneuvers around characters who do not "belong" at the same soiree. They do not, in fact, appear to belong in the same country. White wrote "Beatriz at Dinner" two years ago, before the ascendancy of our current president. The movie, however, feels more like a steadily building cry from the present.

Salma Hayek is Beatriz, a Mexican-American masseuse and holistic healer living in Los Angeles. Saddled with a car that barely starts, she travels from her office at a cancer clinic in Santa Monica to massage clients all over, up and down (mostly up) the socio-economic food chain. At her modest house she keeps dogs and a goat, and as the story begins the goat's incessant bleating has provoked an unseen neighbor into killing the animal.

She's plenty distraught, therefore, by the time she sputters into the vicinity of the swank Newport Beach mansion of a well-heeled client (Connie Britton, shrewdly playing her character right down the middle in terms of sympathy). This woman got to know and admire Beatriz when her daughter was stricken with cancer. Now she's throwing a posh dinner on behalf of her callow husband (David Warshofsky), whose billionaire business partner, portrayed by John Lithgow, is the guest of honor.

Named (too obviously) Doug Strutt, this Trumpian figure is a big-game hunter. He cares nothing for the environment, or social safety nets, or anything outside the most Westernized medicine. He has a chain of luxury resorts worldwide, including in Mexico. He is everything Beatriz detests in a human being.

Dinner is served! These and other characters end up at the same beautiful table, to which Beatriz has been passive-aggressively invited after the breakdown of her car. ("Are you OK with what you're wearing?" asks Britton's character early on, offering Beatriz a change of clothes.) On the ocean-view terrace, Strutt mistakes Beatriz for "the help" and blithely asks for another drink in a way that doesn't quite sound like a question. The moment feels right; it's plausibly squirmy and all too realistic. By the time the second course has come and gone, "Beatriz at Dinner" has already paved a road, brick by brick, laden with insults, assumptions, racist slights and cluelessly patronizing small talk. The odd woman out, the conspicuous "plus-one" at the table, so serenely well-acted by Hayek, begins to call these people on their 1-percenter's privilege.

At heart it's a smackdown between its two primary combatants, Beatriz and Strutt. By Lithgow's standards this is pretty low-keyed acting, but he may have played one too many blowhards in his recent career. His performance works, but it lacks surprise and, as written, he's a bit much. Not that Strutt's rabid capitalist greed is implausible; it's just monotonous.

But the film is better than that. Hayek is quite wonderful, and for a long while "Beatriz at Dinner" keeps her primarily in observation mode, as the slings and arrows pile up, invisibly, all around her. The ensemble includes Amy Landecker as Strutt's most recent wife, all too accustomed to shrugging off his boorishness, and Jay Duplass and Chloe Sevigny as another couple standing to benefit mightily from the business deal Strutt has engineered.

In a recent L.A. Screenwriter interview, White noted that he wrote "Beatriz at Dinner" in 2015. But "Trump or no Trump," he said, "there is a timeless political argument about which is the right way to approach society's issues." His screenplay may suffer from binary thinking, but it's compact and compelling and, at its best, funny in ways that are particularly pointed now that we're living in the times we're living in.

MPAA rating: R (for language and a scene of violence).

Running time: 1:23

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