Dinner Theater

The dark social comedy Beatriz at Dinner mines racial and cultural discomfort for satire, mostly with mixed results

click to enlarge Comedy of manners: It's Salma Hayek vs. rich white people in the social satire Beatriz at Dinner.
Comedy of manners: It's Salma Hayek vs. rich white people in the social satire Beatriz at Dinner.

I've seen a lot of plays that start like this.

A group of characters, either friends or casual acquaintances or business associates, meet for what they expect will be an uneventful evening of pleasant conversation over drinks. Personalities are developed, social hierarchies are established and tensions begin to mount, typically because somebody makes a comment that's twisted well past its initial intention, and the hostility in the room is further exacerbated by the free-flowing booze.

Beatriz at Dinner follows that kind of setup, which we've seen in the likes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and God of Carnage, and it has all the claustrophobic discomfort and sociological grandstanding of an especially caustic off-Broadway drama. It also seems to think that it's dropping a serious bombshell by revealing that one-percenters can be — gasp! — classist, sexist and racist, even when they're desperately trying not to be. This isn't really a bad movie, but its satire ultimately isn't as savage as it thinks it is.

Salma Hayek, who's very good here, plays the Beatriz of the title, a New Age healer and masseuse living in Los Angeles. The movie bends over backward to show us what a delicate soul she has: She prays to a self-made altar — which includes a framed photo of her recently deceased pet goat — every morning, and her car is adorned with a toy Buddha on the dashboard and an image of the Virgin Mary dangling from the rearview mirror.

As the movie opens, she's driving across the traffic-clogged, pollution-choked city for a session with one of her rich clients, snaking her way up into the hills through a gated community of monotone McMansions. When Beatriz's rickety Volkswagen breaks down in the driveway, the homeowner, Cathy (Connie Britton), invites her to stay for the evening. After all, she says, Beatriz is practically family: She was such an inspiration when Cathy's teenage daughter was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Cathy's hospitality reeks of condescension, but Beatriz reluctantly accepts anyway, and soon the wealthy guests (played by the likes of Jay Duplass, Chloë Sevigny and Amy Landecker, all dripping with West Coast elitism) begin to arrive. The occasion for the gathering is a big real estate deal that Cathy's husband Grant (David Warshofsky) has just finalized with well-known hotel baron Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), whose name should tell you everything you need to know about him.

Nearly everyone is only as cordial as they have to be toward Beatriz; they mostly regard her as if she's part of the wallpaper. Strutt, on the other hand, is (no surprise) a complete dick. He initially mistakes Beatriz for a maid. He prods her about her immigration status. He gloats about big-game hunting upon discovering she's a staunch vegetarian. And when Beatriz tells him she's from California, he responds, "But where are you really from?" Making matters worse, Beatriz is pretty sure that Strutt is the guy whose luxury resort destroyed the economy of her family's village.

It's all downhill from there: More drinks are poured, finger-pointing ensues, and a shattered cellphone and the unfortunate implementation of a letter opener end any notion that Beatriz will ever be invited back.

Beatriz at Dinner, which I saw last month at the Seattle International Film Festival, is the latest feature from director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White, whose previous collaborations include the dark, confrontational comedies Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl. As with those earlier films, this one doesn't let any of its characters completely off the hook: They're vain and boorish and culturally tone-deaf, sometimes to the point of caricature, and even poor Beatriz starts to wear on our nerves a bit. As nice as she is, she seems totally ignorant of basic social cues.

But once the movie traps everyone inside its manufactured pressure cooker — and the characters are little more than pieces to be moved about in this game of class warfare — it becomes clear that it doesn't really have anywhere to go. When it finally arrives at its ending, which indulges in an almost impressionistic ambiguity, it feels like a spectacular cheat.

White and Arteta pull the rug out from under us not once but twice, and it isn't all that clever; we merely feel jerked around. It's as if they wanted to back their characters into a corner to watch them squirm, only to chicken out before ever taking the first step. You start to wonder: What would Edward Albee have done?♦

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    About The Author

    Nathan Weinbender

    Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.