Editor’s Notes: Beatriz at Dinner is out on its home video format September 12th.
The title character of Beatriz at Dinner is played by Salma Hayek. Beatriz is a masseuse and alternate-therapy healer who works with cancer patients in a hospital and private clients in their homes. She has been summoned to the elegant Pacific coast home of her client Cathy (Connie Britton) to get her in shape to host an important business dinner that evening. The women bonded when Beatriz treated Cathy’s teenage daughter, who is now free of cancer and away at college.
Having finished the session, Beatriz finds that her balky car won’t start. She calls a friend, but it will take him hours to finish work and drive to the house. So Cathy invites Beatriz to stay for dinner. Beatriz is reluctant to intrude and offers to wait in her car but Cathy insists even though her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) is not thrilled with the idea.
The guests are billionaire developer Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his wife, Jeana (Amy Landecker), and Grant’s colleague Alex and his wife, Shannon (Jay Duplass, Chloe Sevigny). Beatriz attempts to be sociable and, as the wine flows, she becomes more at ease.
The conversation revolves around Doug, who has made his fortune by sidestepping laws, dispossessing poor people, and doing whatever it takes to get his projects completed, no matter how ruthless. The others smile approvingly but Beatriz is clearly unsettled by Strutt’s unapologetic arrogance. When she can no longer hold her tongue, she questions Strutt about his business methods, creating an uncomfortable tension.
Beatriz is an extraordinarily sensitive and perceptive person. She spends her life trying to heal people in a world of great hurt, from the often terminally ill patients she treats daily to the strangling of her pet goat by a neighbor disturbed by its bleating. Coming face to face with a powerful man who, to her, represents all that is inhumane, she is initially aghast at the matter-of-fact manner in which he boasts about his cold business practices. While the others at the dinner party laugh at Strutt’s stories, admire his success, and consider themselves fortunate to be in his company, Beatriz marvels at their shallowness and failure to challenge him.
Director Miguel Arteta, who’s known mostly for directing TV shows, and writer Mike White have provided Ms. Hayek with an excellent showcase. Her Beatriz is far from the glamorous guest we’ve seen on late-night talk shows. Plainly attired in work clothes, with minimal make-up and an unflattering hairdo, the actress shows us the depth of her character’s soul.
The film’s conflict is multi-layered. First, there is the contrast of morality. The dinner guests are all affluent, sequestered from the “outside world” by their gated homes, and concerned primarily with their own lives and pursuits. Beatriz is just the opposite. She looks beyond herself to worry about civility, compassion, and fairness to the point that it creates a permanent melancholy about her. The wine releases her true feelings and, though awkward, she feels smiling politely is not the honest course.
Then there is the one-on-one conflict between Beatriz and Strutt. To her, he epitomizes much that is wrong with society and she takes him on in the congenial setting of a dinner party rather than a protest line. The viewer feels the tension as the guests dart their eyes, squirm uncomfortably, and attempt to distract from the confrontation. We admire Beatriz for her inherent decency and wonder how this evening will turn out.
Mr. Lithgow is excellent as Strutt, a man who parades his arrogance and ill-gotten success as a badge of honor. Whether pontificating to his rapt audience or rudely asking whether Beatriz came to the United States as an illegal immigrant, he is reprehensible, offensive, and boorish. His strong performance is a dramatic contrast to Ms. Hayek’s far gentler portrayal.
Rated R for language, Beatriz at Dinner is particularly welcome at a time when action pictures and animated kids’ films proliferate at multiplexes. This is a movie about people and ideas. It’s also a well-developed character study of a complex woman who finds her voice at a most inopportune time.
There are no bonus features on the widescreen DVD release.