Depending on your politics, you may be inclined to forgive the flaws of “Beatriz at Dinner,” in which Salma Hayek plays a financially challenged and empathic healer who unexpectedly breaks bread with a dastardly billionaire portrayed by John Lithgow.
The name of this repulsive villain — who is so lacking in decency as to shoot big game in Africa — is no less than Doug Strutt, which will strike different viewers as either stinging and hilarious or blunt to the point of numbskullery. The same goes for his very pointed resemblance to a certain prominent member of the executive branch of the U.S. government.
Part comedy and part melodrama, “Beatriz at Dinner” does offer a good performance by the redoubtable Hayek, but it’s all so heavy-handed that it’s hard to stay engaged with the movie. That’s a shame, because the picture reunites two filmmakers — director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White — who collaborated on a pretty good movie in 2000 called “Chuck & Buck.”
Beatriz is a middle-aged Mexican immigrant working in Southern California as a masseuse and holistic healer at a cancer center. A bit of a space case, she has a deep understanding of the sufferings of her clients, and a talent for helping them. If that’s not noble enough, she also keeps a goat in her room, a protective move since one of her other goats was killed by an angry neighbor. There are not many shades of gray in Beatriz’s world.
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Making a house call on a moneybags client, Kathy (Connie Britton), Beatriz’s old jalopy breaks down, leading to an impulsive invitation — Kathy’s loaded with noblesse oblige — to stay for a dinner party that will be attended by Lithgow’s billionaire and a few others (including characters portrayed by Jay Duplass and Chloe Sevigny).
Though the underdressed Beatriz is several times mistaken for a servant, she tries to be gracious to these glam, self-centered folks, who keep inadvertently pushing her buttons. The billionaire and Kathy’s boot-kissing husband laugh it up about their highly profitable business shenanigans, until Beatriz wonders if she’s meet the Lithgow character before. Was he possibly involved in a dubious south-of-the-border development that led to violent protests?
Hayek clearly attempts to give some balance to her performance, but Beatriz is such a relentless do-gooder that when she finally erupts, it’s not entirely convincing. The deck is so stacked in her favor that you might secretly feel a jot of something like sympathy for Lithgow and company, as contemptible as they are.
Arteta and White do wring some decent comedy from the dinner-table repartee — these are capable actors, and it’s entertaining to watch the crossfire of boasting, jockeying for position, undermining and sniping. But while the filmmakers’ hearts are in the right place, they hurt their cause by foreswearing delicacy and depth.
Beatriz at Dinner
Rated: R for language, a scene of violence. Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton. Director: Miguel Arteta. Running time: 83 minutes. Theater: Flicks.