In a way, the most important relationship in Beatriz at Dinner is the one between the title character and someone who only appears in a handful of photographs. Played by a noticeably deglamorized Salma Hayek — for whom the role was tailor-made by director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White — Beatriz is a holistic health practitioner whose work with cancer patients brought her into the orbit of Cathy and Grant (Connie Britton and David Warshofsky) when their daughter Tara was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Now fully recovered (thanks in no small part to Beatriz’s efforts) and at college in Ohio, Tara is a world away from her cloistered home in Newport Beach, Calif., but her mother still periodically calls on Beatriz to work miracles in her capacity as a massage therapist.
It’s after one such house call (an imposition for Beatriz since the already-long drive lands during rush hour) that her chronically unreliable car breaks down, leaving her stranded in Cathy and Grant’s gated community on the night they’re hosting a small dinner party. Without stopping to think, Cathy invites her to stay and join them, setting the stage for a culture clash of serious proportions. This becomes apparent well before Beatriz comes face to face with Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), Grant’s obscenely wealthy boss and the espouser of appalling views on any subject you can name.
For starters, there’s the difference between how Beatriz is met at the door by Cathy, who’s expecting her, and later by the maid — who’s also Hispanic — after her car fails to start. (Pointedly, Arteta and White don’t subtitle their brief exchange in Spanish before Cathy comes down to investigate.) While Cathy secures a place for her at the dinner table, reasoning with Grant that she’s “a friend of the family” (“She is?” he asks, incredulous), Beatriz naturally gravitates toward the kitchen, which is also where she retreats after telling Doug off (the first time) later in the film. For the time being, she’s content to stay out of the way, even cleaning a window smudge she notices while observing the arrival of social climbers Alex and Shannon (Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny), an up-and-coming lawyer whose legal maneuvering greased the wheels for the approval of Doug’s latest development and his tart-tongued “plus-one,” respectively.
It’s not long after his name is invoked that Doug Strutt’s arrival is heralded by the community’s gate reflexively opening for his chauffeured SUV. As he and wife #3 Jeana (Amy Landecker) alight from it, Doug does a subtle take at Beatriz’s beater, yet he takes no notice of its owner standing close by holding her wine glass while everyone else congregates in the foyer and self-segregates by gender. (“Don’t leave me stuck with the wives all night,” Shannon says to Alex, but there’s no way that’s not going to happen.) Arteta highlights the division of the sexes by placing Beatriz at the center of the frame, her back to the camera and the men and women on either side of her. They stay in these groupings when they move outside, with Beatriz remaining aloof until Cathy remembers her and brings her over, at which point the gulf between her Earth-mother spirituality and their status-seeking materialism becomes even more pronounced. Witness their conversation’s abrupt transition from Tara’s cancer treatments — which Jeana and Shannon knew nothing about — to a reality star’s invasive phone-hacking scandal.
All this is mere prelude, though, to Beatriz’s first real interaction with Doug, who mistakes her for the help and asks her to refill his drink. Despite being corrected by Grant, who like Cathy has to be reminded to treat Beatriz like the guest she is, Doug digs in deeper by pointedly asking her where she’s “really” from and refuses to back down when she defiantly throws the question right back at him. Their verbal sparring continues when everyone sits down to dinner, with Doug holding court at the head of the table. “Did you come legally?” he asks, reveling in shocked reactions to his politically incorrect needling and patronizingly congratulating her for being gainfully employed.
What really rankles Beatriz, though, is when the conversation turns to Doug’s new project and the nests of protected birds that have to be moved to make way for it. Believing she may be unexpectedly dining with the American developer who destroyed her hometown and fragmented her family in Mexico decades earlier, Beatriz excuses herself and makes a frantic call to a relative, but is unable to confirm her suspicions. Instead, she tries to get what she can out of the cagey billionaire, who vacillates between condescension and puzzlement, but gladly accepts the neck massage she gives him gratis. Thus loosened up, Doug lets down his guard when the group moves to the living room for dessert, the three men seated together on the couch (in descending order of importance) and the women in separate chairs. It’s in that setting that Doug enthuses about his upcoming African safari and shows off a photo of the rhino he bagged on his last trip, passing his phone around until it reaches the animal-loving Beatriz, who lets him have it before storming off. Doug shrugs it off (“Not everyone’s like me, and thank God,” he says with patrician nonchalance), but Grant and Cathy are beside themselves with mortification, worried about how Beatriz’s behavior reflects on them.
When Cathy finds Beatriz in the kitchen, she’s quick to apologize for her outburst, blaming her wine consumption, but Cathy’s response is to send her to her (i.e. Tara’s) room, where Beatriz demonstrates how much better she knows the girl by making a beeline for her marijuana stash. And that’s where she might have stayed had Doug’s voice not carried from the pool, where the men retire to have cigars, their boys’ club intact. Moved to look him up online and armed with the knowledge this gives her — and one of Tara’s guitars — Beatriz rejoins the party to serenade them with the song Cathy requested in less fraught times.
It is here that Arteta repeats the shot from behind Beatriz, only this time Grant and Cathy are isolated to the left and the others are on the right, with Jeana placing herself between Doug and Shannon to discourage her husband’s wandering eye. (At dinner, with Cathy at his side, he joked, “If I wasn’t on my third wife, I’d steal you away,” so clearly Jeana has reason to be on the defensive.) Meanwhile, the visibly drunk Alex would be in danger of embarrassing himself if Beatriz weren’t stealing the spotlight — first with her song, which is in unsubtitled Spanish (but there’s no mistaking the meaning behind it), and then with her unveiled threat to Doug and his sycophants that they won’t escape the turmoil to come. “It will touch you,” she warns, prompting Cathy to nudge Grant, giving him the go-ahead to eject the troublemaker from their home and presumably their lives.
Well-meaning to the bitter end, Cathy tries to buy off her guilt by offering Beatriz money, but is surprised when the woman she thought was her friend rebuffs her. “You don’t know me,” Beatriz says firmly and heads outside to wait for the tow truck driver she probably can’t afford to pay. And that’s where she might have let things lie if Doug hadn’t felt the need to twist the knife one last time. “The world is dying,” he shrugs, barely acknowledging his role in hastening its demise. “What are you going to do?” To be sure, Beatriz has an idea about that, but Arteta and White aren’t interested in letting the audience off that easy. In fact, their sendoff for Doug makes it plain he hasn’t been touched by his brush with this passionate idealist in the slightest. Whether we like to admit it or not, some people simply are untouchable while others feel too much. Beatriz assuredly falls into the latter category.
As for the absent Tara, it’s an open question what her parents will tell her about the night the thoughtful caregiver who nursed her back to health came to dinner. Maybe they naively hope Tara won’t ask after her. And maybe they’ll come to understand why she chose to go to college so far away from them in the first place.
Craig J. Clark lives in Bloomington, Ind., which is free of class differences.