* * (out of five)
I found Beatriz At Dinner excruciating to sit through, even at a very slender 82 minutes. I’m extremely sensitive to social awkwardness, and this film is stuffed with it. Cringe comedy, I can do; unlike some people, I have no problem bingeing on two or three consecutive episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm or the British version of The Office. But when actors are deftly playing painfully awkward social moments with realism, and not for laughs, I find it hard to bear.
In this case, the social milieu is that of the impeccably tasteful Californian gated-community coastal rich. Kathy (Connie Britton) is the perfectly poised, seemingly well-attuned wife of Grant (David Warshofsky), who is less likeable. They’re having two of his associates (and their partners) to dinner, to celebrate some sort of zoning or legal issue that will pave the way for ground being broken on a real estate project that will all make them all richer (and, to varying degrees, they are all already very rich). One of those associates is wildly richer than the others; he is a billionaire, Trump-rich, even Murdoch-rich. And he suffers from billionaire syndrome; he is so sheltered, so surrounded by sycophants, that he can pass around a triumphantly smiling photo of himself, in Africa, with a rifle and a large dead rhino that he has killed, and not worry about hearing anything but congratulations. He is, by most of the world’s reckoning, disgusting, and he is played with sickening charm (I’m sure guys like this are usually charming; they can afford to be) by John Lithgow, who is perfect casting for many reasons not least of which is his Trump-like height; he towers above all, as a benevolent bully should.
The odd one out at the table is Beatriz (Salma Hayek); she’s a “healer”, combining massage and many other holistic methods, particularly for cancer patients. She helped during Kathy and Grant’s daughter’s cancer (which has since gone into remission), and now occasionally comes by to give Kathy a massage. This afternoon, her car breaks down at their house, and she’s invited to stay for dinner, where she disrupts things aplenty.
Beatriz is a tricky character; she is annoyingly socially clumsy (talk about not being able to read a room!) but the heavy-handed script by Mike White forces her on us as nothing other than a paragon of virtue; she’s so noble, she may as well be a Saint or an Angel. Hayek’s odd performance doesn’t help matters; at times she makes Beatriz appear “simple” – also, perhaps, a fault of the script, especially if that is not the intention.
The milieu is impeccably depicted with superb telling observations – the maître d for the evening, played by John Early, is dressed in smart casual business rather than waiter attire, which rings very true as some cool thing at wealthy business dinner parties in California – and shot scrumptiously, the Californian haze creating the most perfect ocean-view dusk one could imagine. Indeed, the direction, by Miguel Arteta, does the best it possibly can with the script, but the script is an on-the-nose, ultimately annoying clanger, and if anyone can claim the ending as satisfying I’d love to hear their reasoning.