Salma Hayek gives the performance of her career in this stealth weapon of a comedy from director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White, one that takes aim at the divided and divisive world we live in. Don’t say you haven’t noticed. The star, bringing down the glam but radiating grit and grace, plays Beatriz, a Los Angeles massage therapist and holistic healer. Her life revolves around her patients and the animals, mostly dogs and goats, she lives with in Altadina and treats like her children. Beatriz is an earth mother, superficially distant from Frida Khalo the Mexican artist and radical activist Hayek played triumphantly (she won an Oscar nomination) in 2002’s Frida. This is a woman who feels deeply, but holds back on expressing herself … at least at first.
After finishing a session with Cathy (Connie Britton), a wealthy client whose teenage daughter Beatriz nursed during the girl’s chemo treatments, the masseuse finds that her on-the-fritz VW won’t start. Her client insists she stay for dinner at their posh Newport Beach mansion; after all, Beatriz is “a friend of the family.” Cathy’s husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), thinks that’s pushing it. The invite list includes two other couples – Alex (Jay Duplass) and Shannon (Chloë Sevigny), and Doug (John Lithgow) and Jeana (Amy Landecker). What will these guests, more business associates than friends, think of this woman with her khaki pants, cheap blouse and halting English? None of this is ever spoken, by the way. Judgments on class and race are thinly veiled by polite chatter and the lightest condescension. The blunt talk comes from the only guest that matters.
That’s Doug Strutt (great name), a real-estate billionaire with more than a passing resemblance to Donald Trump and one the great Lithgow plays with magisterial finesse and startling good humor. Everyone at the table, except Beatriz, owes their livelihoods to this master manipulator. Strutt initially mistakes this Mexican immigrant for a service provider. But White, who collaborated memorably with Arteta on the potently perverse Chuck & Buck (2000), is too sharp a screenwriter to go for easy marks. As the visitor joins these six for a dinner from hell, the best and worst of everyone is on full display.
Startling events, real and imagined, ensue. Beatriz initially swallows her resentment in silence. Later, her inhibitions loosened by wine, she has the courage to speak truth to power, to challenge entitlement. Will it make a difference? Hardly. Ironically, the yearning Beatriz feels for lost purity in the world finds its echo in Strutt, a plunderer who actually understands the implications of the cancer he’s spreading into the natural order, which makes him even scarier. The acting duet between Hayek and Lithgow in these scenes is incredibly powerful. But it’s the empathy the actress brings to Beatriz that stays in your mind and heart. She’s luminous. The funny, touching and vital Beatriz at Dinner probably tackles way more than it can handle, but so what? Godspeed. You won’t know what hit you.