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D: Miguel Arteta / 82m

Cast: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, Chloë Sevigny, David Warshofsky, John Early

The dinner party has long been used as an excuse for movies to explore the differences between people, or to expose secrets, or to raise questions of a social, sexual, psychological, philosophical, or moral nature. Beatriz at Dinner seeks to cover each of these angles in its relatively short running time, but is it as successful as it may have wanted to be? The answer lies in the way in which it establishes its main character, the titular Beatriz (Hayek). When we first meet her, Beatriz is in a rowboat in a mangrove swamp. It’s a beautiful location, peaceful and calming, and on a bright sunny day. It’s idyllic. But then Beatriz spies a white goat stranded on the shore line. The camera moves in closer – and then Beatriz wakes up; it’s all been a dream. However, it’s a dream that has a basis in reality, because Beatriz has a goat in a pen in her bedroom. It tells us a lot about her, about her principles, and what type of person she is. How will she fare then, when placed in a room with a group of people whose experiences of life, and whose attitudes, are so different from hers?

That’s the question at the heart of Mike White’s screenplay, one of four that were made into movies during 2017 – the others were The Emoji Movie, Brad’s Status, and Pitch Perfect 3. White is a multi-hyphenate who has built up a solid reputation for himself as a screenwriter, and since his first script for Dead Man on Campus (1998), he’s plied his trade in both mainstream and indie circles. Beatriz at Dinner is definitely one of his indie projects, and it reunites him with Arteta, who directed another of White’s scripts, Chuck & Buck (2000). But where White is usually sharper and more astute with his indie scripts, this time around there’s a sense that not all the movie’s ambitions have been met. It’s puzzling, yet perhaps shouldn’t be, because it all hinges on Beatriz, and Beatriz isn’t exactly the kind of heroine that we were probably expecting. She’s a legal migrant from Mexico, she works as a therapist at a cancer treatment centre, and she does private massages for a variety of clients. She doesn’t wear any make-up, drives an old beat up car, has a goat and two dogs, doesn’t appear to be in a relationship, and believes in an holistic approach to life.

One of her clients is Kathy (Britton). Kathy lives with her husband, Grant (Warshofsky), in a gated community outside of Los Angeles. Their house has a view of the ocean and practically yells new money. Beatriz arrives one afternoon to give Kathy a massage, but her car won’t start when she tries to leave. Kathy insists that Beatriz stay for dinner, even though it’s a dinner party for two of Grant’s business colleagues and their wives, and Beatriz is only waiting on a friend to come and get her car started. The first guests, Alex (Duplass) and Shannon (Sevigny) arrive, followed by the other couple, Doug (Lithgow) and Jeana (Landecker). The three couples are celebrating a business deal that Alex has closed, and which stands to make them even richer than they already are. Beatriz begins to suspect that she knows Doug from some time in her past, perhaps in Mexico. As the evening progresses, Beatriz has a little too much to drink, but not enough to stop her voicing her disgust when Doug brags about his having hunted big game in Africa. But her outburst causes a rift between her and Kathy, and when she learns more about Doug and challenges him on some of his sharp practices as a businessman, that rift grows even wider…

Beatriz at Dinner has been widely regarded as a comedy as well as a drama. This is a little misleading, as while there are certainly humorous moments, and other moments where a darkly satirical tone is adopted, this is a drama through and through, serious in its intentions, and direct in its approach to the material. White is looking to skewer the pompous, affected nature of these entitled men and their equally entitled wives, and he does so by providing them with dialogue that makes them sound crass, insensitive, patronising, and lacking in self-awareness. It even extends to the “help”, when John Early’s eerily proficient Evan interrupts Beatriz when she’s talking, to advise on the starters that are available. Beatriz is talking about the hardships she’s experienced in her life; he wants to make sure the guests know what sauces go with the beef and the halibut. Just by that alone you know the evening isn’t going to go well.

Tension arises through the character of Doug, whose company has been involved in several controversial incidents, some of which have occurred in Mexico. The scene is set for a showdown between Beatriz and Doug, but White makes Doug look like he’s made out of Teflon; no matter how angry or aggrieved Beatriz becomes, Doug just shrugs it off as if it’s of so little importance than he can’t even be bothered to acknowledge it. By adopting this approach to the character, White has made him incapable of being affected, and so he remains a largely anodyne villain, in place to stir up emotions and provide conflict, but too remote in attitude to care about being attacked in the first place. Lithgow is good as Doug, expressing right-wing opinions on a variety of topics, and forever wondering why anyone should care if what he does is harmful or even immoral. Doug is a character we want to see bested and taught a valuable lesson about responsibility, but White has other ideas, and so in those terms the movie ends unsatisfactorily, and worse still, elliptically.

Aside from Beatriz, Doug and Kathy, the characters are bland, interchangeable versions of each other, though Grant does show a huge propensity for ass-kissing (see how many times he agrees with something Doug says). As a result there’s little in the way of scene-stealing, and Sevigny and Duplass are on the periphery of the action for the most part, their roles more mundane than necessary. Britton is good as the outwardly empathetic but inwardly image conscious Kathy, while Hayek connects well with Beatriz’s sense of herself as a healer, expressing the character’s spiritual and environmental passions with an understated yet still fervent sincerity. Arteta has trouble mustering enough energy in some scenes, leaving the movie feeling flat and prosaic, and there are times when it seems as if something momentous is about to occur – but it doesn’t (though when something momentous actually does occur, even then it’s undermined by narrative decision making). All this makes for occasionally intriguing viewing, but in the end, the movie leaves too much unaddressed to make it work consistently or completely.

Rating: 6/10 – a movie that often lacks substance thanks to the stereotypical nature of most of its characters, Beatriz at Dinner is neither acerbic enough nor penetrating enough in its efforts to expose the moral and ethical lassitude of America’s nouveau riche; Hayek gives an impassioned portrayal, but it isn’t matched elsewhere, and though the script strives for political relevance, it doesn’t offer the kind of insights that would have an audience nodding their heads in weary recognition.