In the modest, enjoyable comedy of manners Beatriz At Dinner, an earnest and New Age-y massage therapist (Salma Hayek) ends up spending an evening at a longtime client’s Orange County mansion after her hatchback breaks down in the driveway. Given that the title character is a Mexican immigrant and that the guest of honor at the small soiree to which she’s become a last-minute addition is Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a billionaire real-estate and resort mogul with Trump-ian characteristics, one might think that this has all the makings of the kind of broad, pained farce where every character is a mouthpiece for over-determined conflicts of sociopolitical opinion. But though Beatriz At Dinner goes for its share of low blows against the vapidly white and well-to-do—represented by a couple of upwardly mobile guests played by Chloë Sevigny and Jay Duplass—its small pleasures lie in the way it sidesteps cheap caricature. The movie, which marks the belated reunion of director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White, who previously collaborated on Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl, insists on letting its characters behave like, well, characters. And that’s what makes it frustrating in retrospect, as it blows some of the most astute writing that White (who also penned School Of Rock and created HBO’s Enlightened) has done for film on a flimsy and miscalculated finale.
There is the old problem of praising a movie for what it doesn’t do, but it should still be noted that one of the more careful aspects of White’s script is the characterization of Beatriz and the way it declines to make her into an all-encompassing cartoon representative of immigrant-hood. She is a hippy-dippy classic West Coast character, single and middle-aged, currently mourning the death of one of her pet goats. She’s known her hosts, Cathy (Connie Britton) and Grant (David Warshofsky), for years, having first met them through a cancer treatment center when their now-college-aged daughter was in chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And Strutt is no oblivious dinner-table despot; rather, Lithgow plays him with an air of relaxed, self-deprecating smugness. Beatriz At Dinner, in other words, is smart enough to recognize that privilege means being comfortable everywhere and never taking offense at anything (which, in Strutt’s case, includes getting an object lobbed at his head), while others feel like they’re servants who have been allowed to sit at the big table even when they’ve been invited as family friends. What’s interesting, too, is how few jokes the movie plays at the expense of Beatriz or Strutt; instead, its satirical targets are the hosts and guests who try to make small talk with these two natural foils. (“I had this Gypsy steal $2,000 from me once” and “France is, like, a third-world country” are two typical off-the-cuff remarks.)
Arteta, who is a prolific journeyman director of film and TV comedies, doesn’t have the flashiest or most distinct of styles, but he has a solid grasp of those physical dimensions that complement White’s highly verbal script. These are simple things that a more farcical comedy might play as visual gags, like how each arriving luxury vehicle has to park around Beatriz’s dumpy ’90s Volkswagen. The most important of these is simply Beatriz’s physical presence and appearance—the shirt that’s been machine-washed too many times, the unflattering chinos that tightly grip the outline of an iPhone 4 in the front pocket. Hollywood movies prefer to mask differences in actors’ heights, but Beatriz At Dinner repeatedly utilizes Hayek’s short stature (she’s 5’2”) in wide shots, separating her from both the male guests (including the 6’4” Lithgow) and the women, who teeter precariously on expensive heels. This is the kind of performance that Hayek, a gifted actor, rarely gets to give, cemented through small scripted gestures; everything the audience needs to know about the relationship between her character and the unseen daughter is communicated in the way Beatriz casually goes for the girl’s bedroom marijuana stash after excusing herself upstairs.
There is much to admire in Beatriz For Dinner’s attention to character detail. But its stubborn refusal of over-heated or contrived conflict ultimately gets the better of Arteta and White, as they leave behind the squirmy-but-humane comedy that is their strong suit for a sub-student-film attempt at metaphysics. How bad is it? Let’s just say that’s it’s set to Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” and that half of it consists of shots of running water.