An un­for­get­table dinner con­ver­sa­tion

Los Angeles Times - - AT THE MOVIES - justin.chang@la­

pre­vi­ously joined forces on the movies “Chuck & Buck” (2000) and “The Good Girl” (2002) and the short-lived HBO se­ries “En­light­ened,” have a proven knack for mak­ing their char­ac­ters and au­di­ences squirm. They wield their scalpel here with prac­ticed skill, though like some of the other sharp blades on dis­play, it takes its time to emerge.

When we first meet the sweet-souled Beat­riz (a never-bet­ter Salma Hayek), she’s hang­ing out in her L.A. home with her dogs and goats, then per­form­ing mas­sages at a holis­tic treat­ment cen­ter. She’s a healer and a nur­turer, and her deep feel­ing for the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers is sig­naled by a twinkly score and some serenely lovely man­grove-for­est im­agery that the film keeps dip­ping into, as if it were a warm, re­gen­er­a­tive bath.

Later that af­ter­noon, Beat­riz drives 60 miles south to meet a reg­u­lar client, Kathy (Con­nie Brit­ton), at her gated New­port Beach es­tate. The mas­sage is soon fin­ished, but Beat­riz’s car won’t start, and Kathy, ea­ger to show both her hos­pi­tal­ity and her un­der­stand­ing, in­vites Beat­riz to stay for the dinner that she and her hus­band, Grant (David Warshof­sky), are host­ing for some very im­por­tant busi­ness as­so­ciates.

The first to ar­rive are a young cor­po­rate go-get­ter (Jay Du­plass, ter­rif­i­cally asi­nine) and his wife (Chloe Se­vi­gny, all wil­lowy hau­teur), but the star of the evening is Doug Strutt (John Lith­gow), a bil­lion­aire real-es­tate mogul who shows up with his third wife (Amy Lan­decker) and a lot of smug blather about his lat­est deal. At first no one takes much no­tice of the plainly dressed new­comer in their midst, un­til Doug, spy­ing Beat­riz out on the pa­tio, asks her to re­fresh his drink.

From there the evening gets steadily worse (the movie, mean­while, keeps get­ting bet­ter), as White and Arteta raise the emo­tional tem­per­a­ture by de­li­ciously in­cre­men­tal de­grees. There’s a bit of mis­di­rec­tion go­ing on here, as if we were be­ing in­vited to share the other guests’ con­de­scen­sion to­ward Beat­riz, to ob­serve her gen­tle earth-mother de­meanor and as­sume that she must be sub­mis­sive and un­so­phis­ti­cated to boot.

But any con­fu­sion soon passes, and the film’s sym­pa­thies be­come en­tirely clear. It isn’t in­tel­li­gence that Beat­riz lacks; it’s guile. What gives the movie its un­set­tling power is its ear for the rhythms and eva­sions of small talk — a po­lite, pa­tri­cian lan­guage for which Beat­riz has nei­ther the ap­ti­tude nor the pa­tience. Gen­tly but with in­creas­ing pur­pose, she seizes hold of the dinner con­ver­sa­tion and steers it in an un­set­tling new di­rec­tion.

Doug, his ar­ro­gance and vul­gar­ity barely hid­den be­neath an air of gen­tle­manly good hu­mor, is clearly used to hold­ing court. He doesn’t ex­pect Beat­riz to en­gage or push back the way she does — po­litely at first, then with in­creas­ing vigor, her in­hi­bi­tions fad­ing with ev­ery glass of wine. He asks her about her im­mi­gra­tion status; she presses him about his busi­ness deal­ings, specif­i­cally whether he hap­pens to own the lux­ury ho­tel that bankrupted the poor Mex­i­can vil­lage she once called home.

Even be­fore Doug brings up his lat­est African hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tion, it wouldn’t take a par­tic­u­larly at­ten­tive viewer to de­duce that “Beat­riz at Dinner” is a barbed al­le­gory for the Trump era. Cer­tainly it seemed that way to some of us who saw the movie at this year’s Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, three days af­ter the pres­i­den­tial in­au­gu­ra­tion. See­ing it again last week, on the very day Trump an­nounced the U.S. would exit the Paris cli­mate ac­cord, only brought re­newed force to its in­dict­ment of en­vi­ron­men­tal cal­lous­ness and cor­po­rate greed.

But this queasily funny and sus­pense­ful movie is more than a smirk­ing ex­er­cise in ide­o­log­i­cal deck stack­ing, and to praise it for its po­lit­i­cal rel­e­vance would be to un­der­state its sub­tlety and speci­ficity. There’s a sly Buñuelian el­e­gance to the satire (it’s prob­a­bly no co­in­ci­dence that Beat­riz shares her name with a char­ac­ter from Buñuel’s doomed-dinner-party clas­sic “The Ex­ter­mi­nat­ing An­gel”), and to the script’s pat­tern of build­ing and re­leas­ing ten­sion, es­ca­lat­ing the stakes with each new go-round. Arteta moves the cam­era through Kathy and Grant’s Span­ish colo­nial es­tate with sin­u­ous skill, wit­tily fram­ing Beat­riz in ways that bring Ja­panese hor­ror films to mind.

Lith­gow gives a mar­velous per­for­mance, and his vil­lainy is too nu­anced, too fil­i­greed, for Doug to be mis­taken for a mere Trump standin (he’s too elo­quent, for starters). The sup­port­ing cast is equally fine; watch the dinner-ta­ble cut­aways to Brit­ton and Lan­decker in par­tic­u­lar, both su­perb at play­ing women who are all too used to de­fus­ing ten­sion and mas­sag­ing their men’s egos.

But “Beat­riz at Dinner” fi­nally rests on Hayek’s shoul­ders, and while the ac­tress may be Hol­ly­wood roy­alty, her trans­for­ma­tion goes well be­yond Beat­riz’s flat bangs and pony­tail. There’s a won­der­ful mel­low­ness to her per­for­mance — some­times her eyes pool with warmth, while other times they grow as wide as saucers — but af­ter a while you re­al­ize that Beat­riz isn’t drift­ing or spac­ing out. She’s lean­ing in and fo­cus­ing hard, try­ing to fig­ure out why her des­tiny and Doug’s have be­come so im­prob­a­bly en­twined.

Why are we here? What dif­fer­ence can we re­ally make, and what good can we ac­com­plish? These are ques­tions that Beat­riz — like Amy Jel­li­coe, the self­help poster girl played by Laura Dern on “En­light­ened” — takes in­cred­i­bly se­ri­ously. But they should also res­onate with any­one who has ever con­sid­ered the Doug Strutts of the world and felt a deep, in­con­solable de­spair.

“Beat­riz at Dinner” has an eerie un­der­tow of me­nace and melan­choly that seems des­tined to end in vi­o­lence, an ex­pec­ta­tion that the movie both honors and up­ends. I’ll say no more, ex­cept that my ear­lier de­scrip­tion of the film now seems both ac­cu­rate and cu­ri­ously in­ad­e­quate. What ini­tially looks like a darkly comic fan­tasy has ex­posed it­self, by the end, as some­thing aw­fully close to tragic re­al­ism.

Lacey Ter­rell Killer Films / Road­side At­trac­tions

CON­NIE BRIT­TON, left, Chloe Se­vi­gny, Salma Hayek and Amy Lan­decker star in “Beat­riz at Dinner,” by direc­tor Miguel Arteta and screen­writer Mike White.

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