There's a kind of staple of postwar American film (you could even, I suppose, hark back to Dinner At Eight if one wants to be hardcore), the awkward dinner party film. An outsider, a stranger, comes to the table of a group - usually wealthy and successful - and imparts some truth telling realness that shakes their complacency and up-ends their (usually) safe insular world.
Beatriz at Dinner has the makings of a potential offbeat classic - well known stars with solid acting chops; a fairly dynamic, if a bit Crash-y, premise; and some juicy scene chewing by John Lithgow as a showy Master of the Universe. Sadly, the whole project comes down to a bit of a fizzle... an interesting idea that doesn't seem to have ever come together as a finished script.
Salma Hayek drabs it down, way down, to play Beatriz, a massage therapist and general non-western medicine guru who leaves her day job at a cancer clinic to minister to a wealthy Newport Beach matron, played by Connie Britten. When Beatriz's iffy VW won't start, our hostess insists that Beatriz stay for a small "business dinner" between her husband, a client (Lithgow) and a mouthy lawyer and their respective wives.
If you can tell where this is headed... it's not hard. This is a movie built on discomfort, particularly the discomfort of the pampered folks in gated communities with fancy rides, and making the audience squirm is only a side effect of the seat shifting on display.The movie meanders over the courses of a catered meal, desultory small talk and awkward silences, enlivened by the wild card of Beatriz and the "I'll be the one to say it" bomb throws of Lithgow, whose character surely thinks Trump will solve the immigrant problem with that great big wall.
What the movie lacks in subtlety - hence the same sort of easy liberal virtue selling as Crash - it makes up for in quietly skewering everyone's particular hobby horse. Britten's well meaning rich girl earnestly tries to have things all ways at once, a champion for the less fortunate living the high life on the profits of her husband's questionable business partners. Beatriz, too, is no saint - the movie looks askance at her new age bromides, she spends much of the movie in drunk soliloquizing, and positioning herself as a truth teller doesn't make her virtuous. As I said the movie has some deliriously rich makings of sublime social commentary lurking in it, somewhere.
Still, for whatever reason, director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White (who previously teamed on the even more disturbing Chuck and Buck) can't figure out where all of this is going. Is Beatriz meant to confront the complacency of the well to do? Is she yet another delicate flower crushed on the wheel of corporate progress? Are we rehashing Bunuel? Who can tell - the film drifts drearily from imagined mayhem to realistic drab downer endings, settling on metaphorical rebirth, none of which feel fully earned or convincing in any way. And Hayek, by the end, seems thoroughly lost.
Like many a promising picture, Beatriz at Dinner is vastly more frustrating for all the promising elements on display than for never even offering any promise at all. It's ridiculously cruel and wasteful to engage a sly thinking woman's movie star like Chloe Sevigny - doing some of her best unheralded work as the young couple's wife - and leave her absolutely nowhere 2/3rds of the way through. Britten, too, has developed a warm, engaging presence that deserves more than what she gets here. Indeed, a film which observes so much about women and their roles across class structures seems unable to commit to exploring the idea in any thoughtful way at all. Hayek can thrown on a bad wig, wipe off the makeup and suit up in badly cut pants all she likes, but nothing, really, betrays her striking good looks and intense presence on screen. Beatriz benefits from that intensity... but the scariest thing is that no one involved here seems to know what to do with her.