It takes talent to make a film that is as much of an entertaining roller coaster as Salma Hayek’s announcement of the 2006 Oscar nominees. “Beatriz at Dinner” is a lot of things from scene to scene. The first half is a broad, yet realistically uncomfortable dinner party that rings true thanks to a talented cast. However, the fervent, yet wild plot mechanisms spin out of control in a third act that could have used more workshopping.
Beatriz (Salma Hayek) works in a Santa Monica cancer ward using alternative medicine to heal. She drives to a wealthy home for a session on the family of one of her closest patients. Cathy (Connie Britton), the wealthy mother of one of her cured patients, stresses for a dinner party that night to celebrate a deal her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) closed. Beatriz’s car breaks down, and suddenly she is invited to join the dinner party. As the evening wears on, Beatriz finds herself at ends with the rest of the party guests. One in particular, Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a heinously corrupt real estate mogul, reminds her of a developer that displaced her family back in Mexico. Tensions collide as a few glasses of wine loosen Beatriz’s lips and let her tell Doug how she really feels.
The film marks the third collaboration between director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White, following “Chuck and Buck” and “The Good Girl.” White’s keen eye for revealing character through dialogue sparkles with discomfort throughout the first half of the film. Subtle are lines are drawn as introductions fail to be made to Beatriz early on. Heavy handed moments, like Doug mistaking Beatriz for the help, are less frequent, rather than crutches. Arteta frequently observes the idle chit chat of these three WASP-y couples through Beatriz’s gaze. Dwelling on Hayek’s subtly expressive face was a wonderfully choice that frames the proceedings. Unfortunately, once feelings explode, neither knows where the film is supposed to go. They try out a variety of wild and out of character directions before settling with a non-ending.
Salma Hayek anchors the film, no matter how wildly it veers. She seems to feel her performance as Beatriz so deeply. Rather than paint Beatriz’s eccentric behavior and spiritual beliefs as something to chuckle at, Hayek sells us on her way of thinking. The film makes one yearn for that time when Hayek was destined for superstardom. She has an innate talent to understand and communicate a character’s beliefs and motivations. If only more films in her career explored this talent. Hopefully more leading roles will come.
Hayek’s performance is only as strong as the forces she goes up against. Lithgow does what he can to not make Doug a very pointed caricature, and at the end of the day seems like that odious figure you know your Dad would want to invite over for a cigar. Britton also gives a nuanced portrayal of a woman who cares for Beatriz, but values lack of conflict more than the bonds of friendship. As the other party members, Jay Duplass, Chloe Sevigny and Amy Landecker all nail every joke. They each play a variation of every semi-successful person you would see at a dinner party in the suburbs. None of them overplay their hand and lean directly into the camp territory the film could easily fall into.
In the end, much like a drunken dinner party with people you dread to see, “Beatriz at Dinner” had some enjoyable insights and moments wrapped in an evening you might not do again. The talent involved definitely has something to say, and it was something that needed to be heard. Yet, the film was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. It begins to demolish any moments of subtlety or nuance it had left in the third act. There’s definitely a lot here to admire, but still quite a bit left to be desired.
“Beatriz at Dinner” is now playing in limited release.