In this slim, germane dark comedy by director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White, Salma Hayek plays a woman who finds herself an unexpected invitee at a one-percenter dinner party in Los Angeles. The guest of honor at the small soiree is Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a famous real estate mogul — and the post-Trump plot seems trip-wired for an epic, Death and the Maiden-style bloodbath between Beatriz, the holistic masseuse Mexican immigrant, and Doug, the intimidating blowhard with camera phone photos of his latest rhino hunt. That’s why it’s quite a relief that the movie adopts a more gentle approach (with a few exceptions) towards its on-the-nose commentary about class, race and politics.
The film’s main mistake concerns the unnecessary inclusion of an upwardly mobile couple (Chloë Sevigny and Jay Duplass) to essentially buttress many of the script’s more unsubtle points. “I love Cancun,” he says when Beatiz brings up Mexico. Yes, we know white people say stupid things, but lines like those sound like phony movie dialogue when delivered with such telegraphed intent. Connie Britton (as the party’s host) and Amy Landecker (as Lithgow’s wife) help stitch the nearly real-time scenes together — the movie runs a svelte 77 minutes — but the film is strongest when it focuses on the fascinating two-hander between Hayek and Lithgow. Intriguingly, it’s Beatriz who lacks finesse with small talk, control of her wine consumption, or understanding of social cues. In a performance that daringly rubs against likability, Lithgow indicates an understanding within his character of Beatriz’s pain and loneliness. “How long until we’re both dead?” he asks her near the film’s end, with a note of resignation in his smirk.
But the movie ultimately belongs to Hayek. Given her most challenging leading role in a film since her Oscar-nominated performance 15 years ago in Frida, the actress creates a complex portrait of a person’s emotional unravelling. Crucially, she’s not overtly sympathetic in her gestures, even if the film’s use of Brian Eno’s ambient track “An Ending” (also employed during the closing credits of Traffic, which costarred Hayek) is pretentiously ill-chosen. Arteta shoots Beatriz in arresting, direct-into-the-camera close-ups, and though the part calls for Hayek to substantially de-glam, she never distances herself from the character’s ordinariness. Years from now, when the orbital politics of the film have dissolved, what will resonate about Beatriz at Dinner will be the sight of Hayek — leaps and bounds more enchanting a screen presence than the performers surrounding her — as a poignant object of neglect. B