Beatriz at Dinner is easily the best role that Salma Hayek has been granted since her Oscar nominated turn as Frida Khalo in 2002, and she makes the most of it. Not having revisited Frida since its debut 15 years ago, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this turn may well be Hayek’s current career zenith. That Beatriz almost lives up to her performance is certainly a testament to director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White. However, the fact that the duo flub the third act in spectacular fashion can’t be avoided, and that shortcoming is particularly hard to accept in light of the film’s virtuosic first hour.
And that first hour is a masterpiece of understatement, introducing Hayek’s Beatriz as a stereotypic California free spirit, complete with the requisite Dr. Bronner’s sticker on the bumper of her beat-up VW. Beatriz is a healer, employing every alternative therapy in the book, from Reiki to Rolfing, in her singleminded quest to address the suffering of the world, one cancer patient at a time. But she’s also a Mexican immigrant trying to earn a living, which has led her into the sphere of a family of Malibu elites (Connie Britton, David Warshovsky) that represent every value she opposes. An ill-fated automotive breakdown strands Beatriz at a business dinner where her employers play host to a pair of sycophantic social climbers (Chloe Sevigny, Jay Duplass) and a repugnant industrialist overlord, played with a spectacular ease of sleaze by John Lithgow. The resultant class and race conflicts are predictable, but riveting nonetheless.
Arteta and White first made waves with their dementedly engaging 2000 Sundance darling Chuck and Buck, and though White would go on to pen more crowd-pleasing (and profitable) Jack Black vehicles while Arteta would bounce between R-rated raunch-coms and Disney kids’ films, the duo never entirely divested themselves of the twisted sensibilities that launched their careers. Beatriz is probably closer to 2002’s The Good Girl or the short-lived HBO series Enlightened than anything else the two have turned out, but it’s also a distinct departure in its level of maturity and subtlety.
Social satire is the name of the game here, and Beatriz nails every beat — at least up until its catastrophic cop-out of an ending. That said, the performances of Hayek and Lithgow alone are worth the price of admission, and Arteta has the good sense to let his camera linger on each. Hayek does more with a brief closeup than most actors can do with a two-page monologue, and I for one hope that casting agents take note and finally pull her headshot out of the has-been drawer. The fact that Arteta and White are able to come as close to a masterpiece as they do on what was obviously a constrained budget and shooting schedule is laudable, but they never could have pulled it off without such a talented cast.
Ultimately, Beatriz feels like an impeccable entree followed by a curdled dessert course; it’s very nearly great, but the finish leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Hayek and Lithgow are beyond reproach, and it’s a shame that the film doesn’t live up to their performances any more than it does to Arteta and White’s prodigious potential. If anything, Beatriz has piqued my morbid curiosity regarding White’s next script due to hit theaters: The Emoji Movie. Rated R for language and a scene of violence. Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.