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Beatriz at Dinner examines society, politics

Chew on this

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In 1967, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were asked to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Now, 50 years later, Beatriz (a middle-class Mexican-American holistic health therapist) has been invited to eat with wealthy white land developers. Welcome to Dinner for a new generation.

Directed by Miguel Arteta, Beatriz at Dinner features Salma Hayek in a title performance that is sometimes subtle, sometimes manic, but almost always spot-on. Admittedly, she gets a lot of help establishing her character from writer Mike White. In the film's first 15 minutes, for instance, we see her consoling her pet goat, helping cancer patients and staring with a heavy heart at smokestacks belching pollution into the Southern California sky. She's a holistic healer not just by trade, but in spirit.

Cathy (Connie Britton) and her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) are two of her wealthy clients. Though she treats Beatriz more like the help than the healer she is, Cathy respects Beatriz thanks to her nursing their cancer-stricken daughter several years earlier. So when Beatriz's car breaks down at their house following a massage session, Cathy asks her to stay for dinner.

Underdressed and unprepared for what awaits her, Beatriz is stunned to learn that the dinner party is comprised of rich property owners and developers who are celebrating their latest triumph: a commercial development that will destroy bird habitats. Adding insult to injury is the attitude of Doug (John Lithgow), a misogynistic, racially insensitive big-game hunter who quizzes Beatriz on exactly how she managed to enter the United States legally. Hold the hot sauce, because this dinner is spicy enough.

Despite the obvious comparisons to Donald Trump, Dinner is devoted more to social and spiritual commentary than to political shots. It's more about the heart than the head. And it's less about our current government than the divide between wealthy industrialists and the agricultural poor that has existed since the Industrial Revolution. In this respect, it's a modern fable filled with greed, inequality and enlightenment, all enhancing what, at first glance, is a rather slight, somewhat heavy-handed production.

Lithgow is effective in his second slime-ball role of the last six months, following Miss Sloane. The other supporting actors, particularly Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny, are also good at portraying the shallowness that Beatriz despises while adding humor to what is mostly a drama. Britton is memorable, too, in the film's toughest turn, which requires her to show sympathy for both Beatriz and her other guests.

Introducing intrigue to the film's structural simplicity are the dreamy visual flourishes of cinematographer Wyatt Garfield. Thanks also goes to editor Jay Deuby for keeping Dinner's courses to a minimum. At 83 minutes, it's refreshingly tight, though the endings – yes, we actually get two – might be too metaphorical for fans of realism.

"I know you," Beatriz tells Doug, and she means it, though they never met in person before the party – because, regrettably, we all know a Doug. His species is eternal and destined to keep showing up at the dinner table of life.

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