Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

83 min. Director: Miguel Arteta. Cast: Connie Britton, Chloe Sevigny, Salma Hayek, John Lithgow.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Well, as the old song goes, “We’ll find out as sure as we live./Something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give.” Screenwriter Mike White and director Miguel Arteta—frequent collaborators, most recently on HBO’s Enlightened—make our nation’s political intractability the stuff of comedy and drama in the provocative Beatriz at Dinner, which dramatizes the spiritual exhaustion of our time.

Happenstance sets the table for middle-class holistic healer Beatriz Luna (Salma Hayek) when one of her rich clients (Connie Britton) invites her to stay for dinner within the walls of a gated community. The dinner celebrates an impending business deal, and the guest of “honor” is a hotel-owning mogul named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). Strutt quickly proves racist (he mistakes Beatriz for the help, then peppers her with questions about her immigration status), callous (he razes indigenous communities and hunts endangered animals for sport), and smug (he’s considering the title “You’re in My Way, Asshole“ for his memoir and refers to his wife as “well-compensated”). “I have opinions,” he unnecessarily points out, “and because I have money, people listen.” Beatriz’s natural enemy, Strutt tests her spirit of goodness and optimism.

There’s comedy in how well White captures the patois and attitudes of the blinkered privileged who pathologically avoid depth—a conversation about old souls nervously switches to reality-TV celebrity nonsense—and the truth Beatriz calls them on: “All your pleasures are built on others’ pain”). While the film teeters close to being a one-sided argument, there’s sympathy for Britton’s hostess and flaws in the gem that is Beatriz, pitch-perfect performances all around (with Hayek, unglamorous but beautiful here, especially resonant in Arteta’s penetrating close-ups) complementing the subtly crafted dialogue.

It’s no great leap to see Strutt as Trumpian, but Beatriz at Dinner has bigger fish to fry than any one figure. White and Arteta’s big picture frames the troubling way of the world under American hegemony, the smokestacks and oil spills idealists can’t wish away. The meeting of Luna and Strutt contrasts healing and nurturing to destruction and a killer instinct (Strutt concludes, “The world is dying. What are you going to do?...You should try to enjoy yourself”).

The filmmakers, unabashedly liberal, examine their own frustration on behalf of those who cast the popular vote in the last presidential election. Where do thwarted liberals put their righteous anger? Do they sink to the level of the enemy? In doing so, would they lose their souls? The troubling resolution (or anti-resolution) to these questions, and the film, will be a conversation starter.