Think of that rule you have in place to prevent politics from being discussed at Thanksgiving dinner.
Now imagine that dinner without it.
This gives you some idea of what to expect in the engaging friction-fest Beatriz at Dinner, a movie that imagines what might happen if estranged factions of the larger American family had a frank airing of views.
In Beatriz at Dinner, this occurs when half a dozen California plutocrats gather in one of their showcase homes to celebrate a business success. A lone representative of the 99 percent, Mexican American massage therapist Beatriz (Salma Hayek), ends up in their midst.
She arrives to give a pregame rubdown to Cathy (Connie Britton) who’s hosting the dinner party for her husband (David Warshowsky) and his associates. Beatriz has a history with the family — she works for a hospital that specializes in alternative medicine and has nursed the family’s cancer-stricken daughter back to health.
When Beatriz’s beater of a car breaks down, Cathy invites her to stay — the sort of magnanimous gesture a woman of her class might make. It’s an acknowledgment that Beatriz is “a member of the family,” but also a way for Cathy to signal her broad-mindedness, to acknowledge class difference, and to advertise her willingness to transcend it.
And there’s no apparent downside. Tiny, meek Beatriz poses no real threat to the self-congratulatory tone of the event, or so Cathy assumes.
Director Miguel Arteta has fun composing shots that show Beatriz literally marginalized — positioning her on the edge of the frame, where she is often mistaken by guests for the help. Beatriz weathers this with practiced aplomb, but quaffs anxiously from her heavy pour of white wine, perhaps feeding her growing assertiveness.
The script by Arteta and Mike White is socioeconomically astute, attuned to the language of 1-percenters, their biases, the way they are both aware and unaware of them (some echoes here of Get Out).
The more Beatriz drinks, the more she wants to puncture the air of self-satisfaction at the table. She is particularly put off by the alpha male billionaire who ends up hogging the spotlight — a real estate developer (John Lithgow) and big-game hunter.
There are probably a few too many cues that encourage us to read this character as Trumplike, but the class issues in play are interesting, as is the movie’s suggestion that there is something capricious in the way we value (and compensate) people — a healer of the sick, a builder of shopping malls. The citing of shopping malls is surely a targeted detail — those same malls are closing all over America, as capital continues its relentless march to the next new thing, leaving behind the ruin and wreckage of the obsolete.
Beyond that, Beatriz at Dinner is a movie that addresses the taboo of talk. In our tribal world, people live different physical and digital realities. Exchanges of ideas and perceptions have nearly ceased in any meaningful way (no, cable news doesn’t count).
Beatriz at Dinner, until an imperfect and out-of-character ending, serves up some tasty cross talk, and a memorable performance by Hayek in the lead.
Beatriz at Dinner
Directed by Miguel Arteta. With Salma Hayek, Connie Britton, John Lithgow, David Warshowsky. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes,
Parent's guide: R (adult themes, language, class warfare).
Playing at: Ritz 5.