DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The director Miguel Arteta and the screenwriter Mike White have collaborated several times in the past on the movies "Chuck & Buck" and "The Good Girl" as well as the HBO series "Enlightened." Their latest "Beatriz At Dinner" starring Salma Hayek is about race, class and culture divisions that arise at a dinner party that goes terribly wrong. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: In the elegantly acerbic new comedy, "Beatriz At Dinner," Salma Hayek plays Beatriz, a Mexican-American immigrant who lives in Los Angeles with her dogs and her goats and performs massages and other healing therapies at a holistic treatment center. She's a soulful-nurturing type with a winsome Earth Mother demeanor that inevitably leads some to dismiss her as meek and unsophisticated.
But the writer, Mike White, and the director, Miguel Arteta, deftly turn that assumption on its head. The story begins when Beatriz's car breaks down at the Newport Beach estate of a wealthy client and family friend named Cathy played by Connie Britton. She invites Beatriz to stay for the fancy dinner that her husband Grant played by David Warshofsky has planned for some very important coworkers.
The first guests to arrive are a good-looking young couple played by Jay Duplass and Chloe Sevigny, whom Beatriz greets with a hug. They're nonplussed but polite. The star of the evening is Doug Strutt, a billionaire real-estate mogul played by a marvelous John Lithgow, arriving with his wife played by Amy Landecker. Doug is an arrogant blowhard and an unapologetically monstrous human being with a chain of luxury hotels that have wreaked social and environmental havoc in developing countries worldwide.
Laughing it up with the boys on the patio, Doug takes one look at Beatriz and, mistaking her for the help, asks her to refresh his drink. From there, the evening gets steadily worse. But the movie just keeps getting better as Arteta and White raise the emotional temperature by delicious incremental degrees. In one scene, as a caterer is about to take everyone's dinner orders, Beatriz gently but firmly takes hold of the conversation and steers it in a different direction.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEATRIZ AT DINNER")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I hope that this is the beginning of a long partnership between Ryden and Ryfe. And I think that we are all going to make a lot of money.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Cheers, cheers.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Tonight you have a choice of two entrees. The chef has prepared...
SALMA HAYEK: (As Beatriz) I would just like to say to Kathy and Grant, thank you for having me tonight. I know you were not expecting me. But I love Tara. I love your family. And I love being in your house. And it's an honor to meet all of you.
CONNIE BRITTON: (As Cathy) Oh, so sweet. Thank you.
HAYEK: (As Beatriz) And I would like to give you all treatments free, of course, as my way of saying thank you for including me tonight.
BRITTON: (As Cathy) Oh, no, Beatriz, you don't have to do that.
JOHN LITHGOW: (As Doug) A treatment? What do you mean?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) She's a masseuse, Doug. She gives massages.
LITHGOW: (As Doug) We're getting free massages? All of us? At the same time? (Laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, you wish, you sicko.
HAYEK: (As Beatriz) You would have to come to the center in Santa Monica. I have an office.
LITHGOW: (As Doug) You have an office? Good for you.
CHANG: At first, you may wonder if the movie, with its squirm-inducing fish-out-of-water comedy, is inviting you to share the other guests' condescension toward Beatriz. But that confusion soon passes. And the film makes its sympathies very clear. It isn't intelligence that Beatriz lacks. It's guile. And she has neither the aptitude nor the patience for small talk.
Her inhibitions fading with each new glass of wine, Beatriz confronts Doug and the other guests on a daring range of topics, including immigration, the environment and animal rights. Even before Doug busts out photos from his latest African hunting expedition, it's clear enough that "Beatriz At Dinner" is a barbed allegory for our present political moment.
At the recent Sundance Film Festival, just a few days after the presidential inauguration, White acknowledged that the film, which was partly inspired by the outrage over the 2015 killing of Cecil the lion, had now taken on even more resonance in the era of Donald Trump. But to its credit, this queasily funny and suspenseful movie is more than just a self-satisfied exercise in ideological deck stacking.
There's a mischievous vibe here that recalls the great bourgeois skewering of Louis Sponwell (ph) particularly the way the story keeps building and releasing tension until a violent end seems inevitable. And Lithgow's performance is too nuanced, too intricately filigreed for Doug to be mistaken for a Trump stand-in. But "Beatriz At Dinner" finally rests on the shoulders of its title character.
Hayek may be Hollywood royalty. But her transformation goes well beyond Beatriz's flat bangs and ponytail. There's a wonderful mellowness to her performance that at first seems of a peace with her character's neo-hippie lifestyle until you realize that Beatriz isn't just drifting or spacing out. She's leaning in, trying to figure out what brought her to this dinner table and why her destiny and Doug's have become so improbably entwined.
Why are we here? What difference can we make? These are questions that Beatriz takes incredibly seriously. And they will resonate with anyone who has ever considered the perpetually troubled state of humanity and felt a deep inconsolable despair. The movie's disturbing conclusion is that the world is full of Doug Strutts. And as satisfying as it might be to call them to account, they never really go away.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic at The Los Angeles Times. If you'd like to catch up with interviews you've missed with Sheryll Cashin about interracial relationships and the landmark Loving versus Virginia case or with conservation photographer Paul Nicklen describing his close encounters with leopard seals in the Arctic or with actor Giancarlo Esposito, who played Gus Fring in "Breaking Bad" and returns to play him in "Better Call Saul," check out our podcast.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FELDMAN, RAUL DE SOUZA, TONINHO HORTA SONG, "SOCCER BALL")
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(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FELDMAN, RAUL DE SOUZA, TONINHO HORTA SONG, "SOCCER BALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.