On the heels of the mega-hit “Wonder Woman,” moviegoers were treated to yet another admirable heroine with an unwavering moral compass, this time in the form of a working-class Mexican immigrant in the delightfully demure industry darling “Beatriz at Dinner.” Unlike Wonder Woman, the frumpy, middle-aged protagonist Beatriz (the beautiful Salma Hayek, deglamorized as much as possible) is an ordinary woman who doesn’t possess superpowers, nor does she take on an entire army. But in the simple act of taking a stand at a small dinner gathering of social elites, Beatriz holds just as glaring a microscope up to society and its ills.
“Beatriz at Dinner” showcases Hayek doing some of her best, most nuanced work as a masseuse based out of Santa Monica who specializes in a multitude of “healing” techniques. Her weathered, barely functioning Volkswagen features a Virgin Mary portrait dangling around the rearview mirror, a Buddha bobblehead on the dashboard and a bumper sticker that reads “All for one.” Her religion may be nebulous, but her belief in karma is unmistakable.
When Beatriz’s car fails to start after she gives a massage to wealthy client Cathy (the always-great Connie Britton) at her gated community mansion in Newport Beach, Cathy insists Beatriz stay the night for a small elegant dinner party she’s hosting with her husband for two of his fellow real estate moguls and their wives. Initially, Beatriz’s lack of familiarity with the pleasantries and social cadences of high society makes the dinner awkward in a palpable but innocuous way. The proceedings escalate from awkward to heated, however, when Beatriz recognizes one guest as Doug Strutt (an outstanding John Lithgow), the cutthroat hotel tycoon who ravaged land in her native Mexico to accommodate his chain of resorts and refuses to back down from holding Strutt’s feet to the proverbial fire.
Beatriz marks the third collaboration between esteemed director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White. Critics in the past have often lauded the pair’s adeptness for infusing films with a satisfying balance of humor, cringe-worthiness and pathos, and Beatriz is perhaps their most glowing example yet.
The film embraces its smallness in scope to give us a pointed dialogue about wealth and greed in modern-day America that somehow feels as personal as it does universal. You get the sense that this challenging conversation that erupts between Beatriz and the billionaire is on the verge of occurring at dinner parties all across America, and it probably should. And thanks to a script that’s intense without ever being on the nose, you understand that, without someone who possesses Beatriz’s stubborn desire to establish the truth, most of these potential conversations likely get swept away under light, inoffensive cocktail chatter.
In addition to its confident script and intimate direction, Beatriz also benefits from a lineup of tremendous actors turning in some of their best performances. Hayek and Lithgow in particular bring a contemplative three-dimensionality to their roles to ensure that you never feel like Beatriz is preaching from a pulpit or that Strutt is twirling a sinister mustache. And, all the while, the affluent dinner guests never come across as rich, obnoxious jerks, but rather sympathetic, real people who are blissfully unaware of their own vanities and privilege.
In lesser hands, this dinner table could have devolved into a soap box and the characters into caricatures. But, thankfully, everyone involved in this film is too smart to allow that to happen.
In a summer season that will see one blockbuster after the next, “Beatriz at Dinner” (which is rated R) stands out with action that hardly ever strays from the dining room table, but with a message that will follow you home.