Mike White and Miguel Arteta re-team for ‘Beatriz at Dinner,’ the best movie of the year so far
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
The pairing of writer Mike White and director Miguel Arteta may be the most undervalued artistic partnership in Hollywood. From Chuck & Buck, their creepy gay stalker comedy, to Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl and even Arteta directing several episodes of White’s hippie-dippy cable sitcom Enlightened, they have a way of approaching unusual, specific stories where Arteta’s cool hand guides White’s quirky, uncommercial storylines to indie cred. (White also writes very commercial screenplays like School of Rock… which Arteta does not direct.)
I suspect their latest collaboration, Beatriz at Dinner, might be a tough sell, which is too bad, because it’s the first great movie of 2017 — a complex, difficult-to-predict comedy of manners that slowly twists into a reverie about evil, mankind and the survival of the planet. And it all takes place over dinner.
Beatriz (Salma Hayek, in a career-defining performance) is a middle-aged animal lover, vegan and professional healer — Reiki, deep-tissue massage, good listener — whose pet goat has just been murdered by, she suspects, a grumpy neighbor. While making a house call for Cathy (Connie Britton), a long-standing client who lives in a luxurious gated oceanfront community in SoCal, Beatriz’s car breaks down. Cathy invites Beatriz to join their small dinner party with some of her husband’s colleagues. And thus begins a tense but illuminating evening of small-talk and big ideas.
White is a master at positing socially-awkward situations in the most confrontational and ambivalent ways. Then Arteta realizes them with sharp visual clues and subtext. He often frames Hayek — clad in mom jeans, drab blouse and zero makeup — as small and physically removed from the colorful, cocktail-dependent social X-rays clucking about real TV stars. Beatriz (they never pronounce her name correctly, lazily resting on the Anglicized “Beatrice”) prefers to discuss global warming, her dead goat, deforestation. When a Donald Trump-esque developer (John Lithgow) joins the party, bloviating about his latest shady business dealings, Beatriz focuses on the pain he brings to the world. You can’t say she’s a fun dinner guest, but you do want her on your side.
It’s a challenge discussing the movie without giving away many of the subtle charms it packs into a lean 75 minutes. Beatriz is humorless but so morally centered she can silently intimidate these nouveaux riche one-percenters. If this were more apparently a psychological thriller or supernatural horror, you might expect Beatriz to go on a rampage of revenge. (It’s a strange combination of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, Death and the Maiden, An Inconvenient Truth and The Help.)
But White plays it close to the vest, commenting on how people talk past each other and don’t really communicate, how social conventions may be what prevents real growth, how the sacred and the profane are at odds with each others and nobody wants to point that out. Led by Hayek’s morosely focused performance, the result is a lovely, surprising, thoughtfully intimate dissertation on what it takes to make a difference as our world spins out of control.
Now playing at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 16, 2017.