A pointed mes­sage in a di­vi­sive time

Los Angeles Times - - AT THE MOVIES - Son­aiya.kel­ley@la­times.com

A long pause fol­lows. “Yes.”

De­spite the height­en­ing ten­sion in the room, she tries to get back to her point.

“I al­ways had in­side me the de­sire to be a healer … ”

“Good for you,” he cuts her off again. “You’re work­ing. You’re con­tribut­ing.”

The dark com­edy shines an un­for­giv­ing light on such top­ics as im­mi­gra­tion and eco­nomic dis­par­ity — both is­sues that are at the fore­front of po­lit­i­cal con­scious­ness in to­day’s deeply po­lar­ized America. It opens Fri­day in Los An­ge­les in lim­ited re­lease.

“It’s a story about what it’s like to feel out­side of so­ci­ety and about how di­vided our so­ci­ety is,” said Arteta in a phone in­ter­view. “But it’s set in the re­ally re­lat­able and ca­sual en­vi­ron­ment of a dinner party, some­thing we can all re­late to.”

Hayek, whose stun­ning beauty is semi-suc­cess­fully muted as Beat­riz be­neath a frumpy monochro­matic out­fit and fringe of baby bangs, signed on for the role be­fore the script was even writ­ten.

“I have al­ways wanted to work with Miguel and Mike,” she said of the direc­tor and screen­writer who had col­lab­o­rated on such films as “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl.” “They ap­proached me with just an idea of what they wanted to do. I don’t care what they would’ve given me, I would’ve done it.”

She spent half a day talk­ing about the film but was told noth­ing more than the role in mind was for a masseuse at a dinner party.

“I didn’t even un­der­stand how the masseuse was go­ing to fit into the dinner,” she said. “But I would’ve done any­thing.”

Two weeks later, all her ques­tions were an­swered.

“It was my birth­day and I got an email from Mike that said ‘Happy Birth­day’ and the script. He wrote it in two weeks and it’s ex­actly the script that you see on the screen. And then I fell in love im­me­di­ately with the char­ac­ter.”

That char­ac­ter is Beat­riz, a holis­tic healer from Mexico who finds her­self stranded at her em­ployer’s New­port Beach home just be­fore a very well-to-do dinner party.

“She does not come in with a chip on her shoul­der, she’s not some­body that has a com­plex of in­fe­ri­or­ity, she’s at dinner with these peo­ple that are rich and pow­er­ful and so­phis­ti­cated, but she doesn’t look up to them,” Hayek said by phone in a separate in­ter­view. “She’s just happy to be there, even if it’s by ac­ci­dent. And she makes an ef­fort to un­der­stand who they are and doesn’t judge im­me­di­ately and doesn’t re­act im­me­di­ately. And I think that this is some­thing that is re­ally needed to­day.”

Beat­riz’s well-mean­ing em­ployer, Kathy (Con­nie Brit­ton), in­sists she stay for the party, not an­tic­i­pat­ing that the deeply em­pa­thetic Beat­riz will butt heads with Strutt, a bil­lion­aire real-es­tate mogul whose at­ti­tudes and be­hav­ior may re­mind some of our pres­i­dent.

“[White] wrote the script be­fore all this hap­pened, and I never was think­ing ‘I’m play­ing op­po­site Don­ald Trump,’ ” Hayek ad­mit­ted. “It would’ve been un­eth­i­cal to play it from my per­spec­tive and not re­ally re­spect the char­ac­ter.”

Though the film is of the mo­ment, its larger theme is what it feels like to be an out­sider in so­ci­ety and the sense of pow­er­less­ness that im­mi­grants and oth­ers feel.

“Ev­ery­one has felt like an out­sider at some point and has felt not re­ally seen or un­der­es­ti­mated,” said Hayek, whose fam­ily is from Mexico. “Also, most of us have felt the hor­ri­ble sen­sa­tion of im­po­tence in front of some­body who is very pow­er­ful and very en­ti­tled and who is com­pletely un­con­scious about any­thing or any­one that doesn’t serve their in­ter­ests.”

One of the ma­jor sources of ten­sion be­tween Beat­riz and Strutt con­cerns the real es­tate de­vel­oper’s ruth­less­ness in busi­ness. Beat­riz, whose home­town in Mexico was over­taken by a lux­ury ho­tel de­vel­op­ment (and was ac­tive in protests to save it), still feels re­sent­ment about the lack of com­pas­sion of busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives and feels deeply nos­tal­gic about the coun­try of her youth.

“My char­ac­ter is very nos­tal­gic about the place of her youth,” said Hayek. “I think all im­mi­grants are go­ing to feel very iden­ti­fied with this. But I think this goes be­yond im­mi­grants be­cause I think in re­al­ity, it’s not a place of her youth that she’s long­ing for, her nos­tal­gia is for a place in­side of her that we all share where we long for our in­no­cence be­fore we re­al­ized how messed up the world was. And who we were then be­cause it’s a place of pu­rity.

“We all have a yearn­ing to go to a time that was sim­pler when we cared about each other more and that al­most seems like an im­pos­si­ble place,” said Hayek.

Hayek em­bod­ies Beat­riz’s long­ing for a re­turn to sim­pler times with a tragic wist­ful­ness, a deep depar­ture from the bomb­shells she’s most fa­mous for por­tray­ing in ear­lier films like “From Dusk Til Dawn” and “Wild Wild West.” In­creas­ingly in re­cent years she’s spo­ken out about po­lit­i­cal is­sues, in­clud­ing im­mi­gra­tion and women’s rights.

“Salma is in­cred­i­bly bright and car­ing and she’s not afraid to tell the truth,” said Arteta. “She was per­fect for Beat­riz. I know she’s very well known for her glam­our and her beauty, but it was her in­tel­li­gence and her em­pa­thy and her courage and her hard-work­ing ethic that re­ally drew us to her. And so I thought she was the per­fect per­son, her in­te­rior qual­i­ties are per­fect for this.”

While the film’s star and direc­tor are deeply fa­mil­iar with the Amer­i­can im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence, they felt it im­por­tant to por­tray both sides of the con­ver­sa­tion with bal­ance.

“It’s not a movie about a lib­eral be­ing cor­rect and a con­ser­va­tive be­ing in­cor­rect, not at all,” said Arteta. “It’s a fair and bal­anced movie, re­ally. The tragedy in life is that we all have good rea­sons for what we do. Peo­ple who abuse this world, they don’t wake up ev­ery morn­ing say­ing, ‘I’m just go­ing to screw this world to king­dom come.’ They have good rea­sons for why they do this in their minds.”

“I think it’s im­por­tant, the film, be­cause it starts a con­ver­sa­tion that shows both sides with re­spect,” Hayek said. “Be­cause both ar­gu­ments are in­tel­li­gent ar­gu­ments and they make sense. And there’s even a mo­ment where you see that we are more sim­i­lar than we think. What de­ter­mines who you are is the choices you make.”

“We didn’t want to pre-di­gest it for peo­ple, we wanted to leave it so that you have to think about it when you leave the the­ater,” Arteta added. “We didn’t want to give any solutions. I def­i­nitely don’t want to pre­tend that I know what the solutions to our time is, I think that would be re­ally pre­ten­tious. I re­ally wanted to re­flect what it feels [like] to be frus­trated by the state of our cul­ture.”

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

JOHN LITH­GOW and Salma Hayek hug, a dis­tinct dif­fer­ence from the class-war­fare spar­ring of their char­ac­ters in “Beat­riz at Dinner.”

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