Middle-class Mexican immigrant Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a massage therapist in southern California. After visiting a wealthy client, Cathy (Connie Britton), Beatriz’s shoddy Volkswagen refuses to start. Cathy invites Beatriz to stay over at her family’s ocean-side mansion for a dinner party she is throwing for her husband (David Warshofsky), some friends, and a hotel mogul, Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). Mingling with the upper classes, Beatriz soon realizes that the billionaire Strutt is a man whose projects she used to protest – and whose very existence is an affront to her ethos as a healer.
Beatriz at Dinner was an audience favourite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, although that could have much to do with the timing. Miguel Arteta’s comedy, written by Mike White, premiered three days after Trump’s inauguration. Therefore, it is not surprising that a film pitting an environmentally conscious immigrant against an arrogant real-estate baron played to applause. However, take all of these zeitgeist-defining moments out of Beatriz at Dinner – and there are many prescient aspects here – and there isn’t all that much left.
The opposing stances between the earnest Beatriz and the egotistical Doug should have had enough fire to fuel many comedic and dramatic exchanges. Nevertheless, Hayek and Lithgow are perfectly cast, with the former finding unexpected moments of gravitas. During the pre-dinner sequences, Arteta aptly observes the gestures of the buffoonish rich folks, arming us within Beatriz’ perspective. (Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker are game for some revoltingly myopic one-liners as the wealthy dinner guests.) Meanwhile, cinematographer Wyatt Garfield does a fine job orienting us to the party home, basking in its opulence as Beatriz acclimates to its space.
But by the film’s midpoint, when the socioeconomic rifts become more prevalent, White’s screenplay cannot escape the thinness of the wealthy characters. They are, ultimately, easy comedic targets with too few dimensions. It all leads to an underwhelming climax, rich in symbolism but lacking much in the way of dramatic heft. Running only 75 minutes before the closing credits, Beatriz at Dinner whimpers out instead of increasing the suspense and sly comedy. There is a crackling satire held at bay here, let down by uninspired plotting and obvious characterization. This is quite a disappointment for White, whose HBO triumph Enlightened engaged with themes related to corporate greed and social responsibility with far more wit and nuance.