Beatriz at Dinner
Directed by: Miguel Arteta
Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass
Rated R for language and a scene of violence
1 hr. 23 min.

To call Beatriz at Dinner a comedy is to apply the term with its loosest definition. It is, more accurately, a wicked, satirical measurement of our current cultural temperament. Is it funny? Darkly, yes. You have to divorce yourself from the accuracy of its often uncomfortable, gimlet eye to feel the humor.

Director Miguel Arteta has collaborated with writer Mike White (lauded for HBO’s Enlightenment) to train our focus on the country’s unattractive and enduring divide, which, today, seems more gaping, more glaring than ever. And they chose the right actress to point the klieg light in its direction.

Those who closely follow films without superheroes or explosions will note that Salma Hayek’s turn as Beatriz is her second fine performance so far this year. The first was as the sister in How to Be a Latin Lover (a delightful film that should be seen by all who get a chance). Certainly it’s her most stellar work since getting an Oscar nomination for Frida in 2002. As when she played Frida Kahlo, it was necessary to tone down Hayek’s stunning looks, and reinvent her as the drab, but ebullient, Beatriz. It’s not easy to make her plain. Her physical beauty, and Beatriz’ beauty of the soul, shine through what amounts to a wakened-in-the-middle-of-the-night, weary visage.

Beatriz is an empathetic, holistic healer, a pure spirit, born in Mexico; a compassionate woman who loves animals and cares for cancer patients. One afternoon, she heads to Newport Beach to see a longtime client. After the session, her car won’t start, so her client, Cathy (Connie Britton), insists she stay for dinner. This is where fate sets one gentle human being on a collision course with the filthy rich: Beatriz, the naturalized citizen, suddenly supping with the elite. A vegan amidst hunters and slayers.

Though driven by dialogue, this film’s cinematic images can speak loudly. One particular shot symbolizes the void between Beatriz and Cathy’s female guests. The height of these literally and figuratively well-heeled women makes them loom over the diminutive Beatriz, as she timidly joins them for an aperitif.

Then there’s the dinner’s guest of honor, Doug Strutt, a super-wealthy real estate magnate, played by John Lithgow, who does not disappoint. He’s always delightfully over-the-top, from work on Broadway to his Oscar-nominated role in The World According to Garp and those effusive long-distance commercials in the 1990s. Strutt is a cringe-worthy snob, a self-satisfied narcissist (a sign of the times?), condescending, bigoted and sardonic. He’s a take-no-prisoners big shot, devoid of any hint of sympathy or altruism.

He’s not alone. The other guests, played by Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass and David Warshofsky, are vessels of vacuity and disparagement who, having aspired to and attained wealth, through work or inheritance, now enjoy it, distanced from want or those in need. When Beatriz commandeers the conversation and steers it in a direction not associated with gain, their collective dismissiveness is palpable.

The film burns to its inevitable conflict and conclusion like a fuse, with its explosion not exactly what you expect. Like the best satire, sadness creeps along the edges, for Beatriz, the other guests, and for the contemporary mores that Arteta and White have fleshed out. Depending on your bent, you leave the theater thinking either that we have a damned shame on our cultural hands, or that bleeding hearts just don’t understand ambition and success. You will also have laughed or cried, clucked your tongue or squirmed uncomfortably. This is as important a movie as there has been this year. Beatriz at Dinner is a full meal. Chew slowly, savor and digest.