"Beatriz at Dinner" is a darkly comic fantasy about an empathetic, nature-loving Latina healer who comes face to face with a racist, vulgar, thoroughly despicable member of the 1%. I say "fantasy" not because it couldn't happen, but because the movie is predicated on the rare thrill of seeing an all-too-human monster being made to answer for his crimes, if only for the duration of one surreal and savagely funny evening.
The director, Miguel Arteta, and the screenwriter, Mike White, who previously joined forces on the movies "Chuck & Buck" (2000) and "The Good Girl" (2002) and the short-lived HBO series "Enlightened," have a proven knack for making their characters and audiences squirm. They wield their scalpel here with practiced skill, though like some of the other sharp blades on display, it takes its time to emerge.
When we first meet the sweet-souled Beatriz (a never-better Salma Hayek), she's hanging out in her L.A. home with her dogs and goats, then performing massages at a holistic treatment center. She's a healer and a nurturer, and her deep feeling for the suffering of others is signaled by a twinkly score and some serenely lovely mangrove-forest imagery that the film keeps dipping into, as if it were a warm, regenerative bath.
Later that afternoon, Beatriz drives 60 miles south to meet a regular client, Kathy (Connie Britton), at her gated Newport Beach estate. The massage is soon finished but Beatriz's car won't start, and Kathy, eager to show both her hospitality and her understanding, invites Beatriz to stay for the dinner that she and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), are hosting for some very important business associates.
The first to arrive are a young corporate go-getter (Jay Duplass, terrifically asinine) and his wife (Chloë Sevigny, all willowy hauteur), but the star of the evening is Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a billionaire real-estate mogul who shows up with his third wife (Amy Landecker) and a lot of smug blather about his latest deal. At first no one takes much notice of the plainly dressed newcomer in their midst, until Doug, spying Beatriz out on the patio, asks her to refresh his drink.
From there the evening gets steadily worse (the movie, meanwhile, keeps getting better), as White and Arteta raise the emotional temperature by deliciously incremental degrees. There's a bit of misdirection going on here, as if we were being invited to share the other guests' condescension toward Beatriz, to observe her gentle earth-mother demeanor and assume that she must be submissive and unsophisticated to boot.
But any confusion soon passes, and the film's sympathies become entirely clear. It isn't intelligence that Beatriz lacks; it's guile. What gives the movie its unsettling power is its ear for the rhythms and evasions of small talk — a polite, patrician language for which Beatriz has neither the aptitude nor the patience. Gently but with increasing purpose, she seizes hold of the dinner conversation and steers it in an unsettling new direction.
Doug, his arrogance and vulgarity barely hidden beneath an air of gentlemanly good humor, is clearly used to holding court. He doesn't expect Beatriz to engage or push back the way she does — politely at first, then with increasing vigor, her inhibitions fading with every glass of wine. He asks her about her immigration status; she presses him about his business dealings, specifically whether he happens to own the luxury hotel that bankrupted the poor Mexican village she once called home.
Even before Doug brings up his latest African hunting expedition, it wouldn't take a particularly attentive viewer to deduce that "Beatriz at Dinner" is a barbed allegory for the Trump era. Certainly it seemed that way to some of us who saw the movie at this year's Sundance Film Festival, three days after the presidential inauguration. Seeing it again last week, on the very day Trump announced the U.S. would exit the Paris climate accord, only brought renewed force to its indictment of environmental callousness and corporate greed.
But this queasily funny and suspenseful movie is more than a smirking exercise in ideological deck stacking, and to praise it for its political relevance would be to understate its subtlety and specificity. There's a sly Buñuelian elegance to the satire (it's probably no coincidence that Beatriz shares her name with a character from Buñuel's doomed-dinner-party classic "The Exterminating Angel"), and to the script's pattern of building and releasing tension, escalating the stakes with each new go-round. Arteta moves the camera through Kathy and Grant's Spanish colonial estate with sinuous skill, wittily framing Beatriz in ways that bring Japanese horror films to mind.
Lithgow gives a marvelous performance, and his villainy is too nuanced, too filigreed, for Doug to be mistaken for a mere Trump stand-in (he's too eloquent, for starters). The supporting cast is equally fine; watch the dinner-table cutaways to Britton and Landecker in particular, both superb at playing women who are all too used to defusing tension and massaging their men's egos.
But "Beatriz at Dinner" finally rests on Hayek's shoulders, and while the actress may be Hollywood royalty, her transformation goes well beyond Beatriz's flat bangs and ponytail. There's a wonderful mellowness to her performance — sometimes her eyes pool with warmth, while other times they grow as wide as saucers — but after a while you realize that Beatriz isn't drifting or spacing out. She's leaning in and focusing hard, trying to figure out why her destiny and Doug's have become so improbably entwined.
Why are we here? What difference can we really make, and what good can we accomplish? These are questions that Beatriz — like Amy Jellicoe, the self-help poster girl played by Laura Dern on "Enlightened" — takes incredibly seriously. But they should also resonate with anyone who has ever considered the Doug Strutts of the world and felt a deep, inconsolable despair.
"Beatriz at Dinner" has an eerie undertow of menace and melancholy that seems destined to end in violence, an expectation that the movie both honors and upends. I'll say no more, except that my earlier description of the film now seems both accurate and curiously inadequate. What initially looks like a darkly comic fantasy has exposed itself, by the end, as something awfully close to tragic realism.
'Beatriz at Dinner'
Rating: R, for language and a scene of violence
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles; Arclight Hollywood; Arclight Pasadena