An Exercise in Awkwardness

In Mike White’s Beatriz at Dinner, an unexpected houseguest leads to an evening of discomfort and bitter comedy

If you found yourself at dinner with Donald Trump, what would you do? Grit your teeth and get through it, not wanting to upset or inconvenience your hosts? Drink until liquid courage prodded you to say something? Fantasize about taking the future of the world into your hands?

When faced with wealthy developer Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), Beatriz (Salma Hayek) does a little of each of the above, but mostly, she considers. A holistic healer, she’s stuck at the blandly giant home of one of her clients, Cathy (Connie Britton), when her old VW breaks down.

Cathy insists Beatriz stay for dinner. They’re friends, right? Her uptight jackwad of a husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), hates this idea, and they argue about it (and everything else) in tight, perfectly ugly little scenes.

Beatriz at Dinner is written by Mike White (Chuck and Buck), which is a guarantee that if awkward comedy makes you cringe, you will be uncomfortable. White knows how people talk around each other without ever talking to the person they’re ostensibly in conversation with — interrupting, not quite listening, operating on a different frequency.

Empathic, earnest, heartbroken Beatriz — her neighbor killed one of her goats, and she keeps leaving voicemails for a person who never calls back — is out of her element among the empty conversations of these wealthy tools. And they barely even see her: The moment when Doug mistakes her for a member of the household staff feels unavoidable. 

The pieces are all in place for a terrible evening, from the excruciating gender dynamics of the white and over-privileged to the simple grace of Hayek’s stare as she watches them step through a dance she’s never had reason to learn. People at polar extremes from one another — in wealth, in politics, in concerns and interests — can make for rich drama or excruciating comedy, but Beatriz at Dinner hovers in a gray area. It’s hideously awkward and bitterly funny, but some of the characters feel half-baked, and the setup is an exercise in inevitability.

Though he doesn’t want you to feel smug and complacent, certain of Doug’s awfulness, White is largely preaching to the converted. Still, he doesn’t let Beatriz off the hook; even as you sympathize with her anger, you might cringe at her next interruption, her inability to make small talk, to adjust her presence to the room. 

But why? Why bother, when faced with these people? The vital discomfort of White’s script is in the balance: If Beatriz would just tip one way or the other, be invisible or wrest control, the tension would shift. That sustained moment of anticipated pain — the moment before you hit the ground, when you know you’re falling and can’t do anything about it — propels the movie, even when the characters are a bit thin, the arguments a bit obvious.

It’s hard to see where to land, after a balancing act like that, and Beatriz at Dinner doesn’t stick the landing. But Hayek, all serenity slowly leaving her face, will stick with you. (Bijou Art Cinemas)