When Beatriz, a Mexican immigrant and unlikely guest at a posh dinner party, is asked to refill a man's drink, it's obvious things are about to go south.
The only question in "Beatriz at Dinner" is how far, and how fast.
It's not far-fetched that Beatriz (Salma Hayek) would be considered part of the help. Dressed in denim and a work shirt, she's there only because her car broke down after giving wealthy client Cathy (Connie Britton) a massage, and then after Cathy had to convince her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) to give his approval.
Beatriz, a Los Angeles massage therapist and holistic healer at a clinic for cancer patients, had helped care for Tara, the couple's daughter, when she recovered from chemotherapy.
"She's not a housekeeper or anything – she's a friend of the family," Cathy insists.
It's a big night: To celebrate the closing of a major development deal, the couple has invited uber-capitalist Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and wife Jeana (Amy Landecker), and a second, younger couple, Doug's junior colleague Alex (Jay Duplass) and Shannon (Chloe Sevigny) to their mansion overlooking the ocean.
Dinner parties often make for great character studies, and this film – directed by Miguel Arteta with a screenplay by Mike White, who teamed up for "Chuck & Buck" and "The Good Girl" in the early 2000s – excels at it. The three couples deploy a variety of dismissive smirks, nods, sideways glances, embarrassed eye rolls and ice-cold glares when Beatriz, as she frequently does, ventures out of bounds.
The film has fun portraying ruling-class manners, and builds tension as Beatriz and Doug clash over values. She's tuned into the natural world and has a firm ethical foundation. The middle-aged divorcee also leads a lonely existence, struggles with unexplained loss and is distraught over a neighbor's recent killing of her pet goat.
For Doug, who bares more than a little resemblance to Donald Trump, all is fair game in his acquisition of wealth and power regardless of the consequence to others. He wants to know if Beatriz entered the country illegally, and wears the controversies that have followed his hotel ventures – which Beatriz found by Googling his name – like a badge of honor.
"The world doesn't need your feelings," Doug tells Beatriz when she brings up the plight of impoverished people who had their land taken away to make room for one of his hotels.
After Beatriz downs a few glasses of wine, it gets harder for her to hold back against the others' sense of entitlement, though she can come across as sanctimonious. When Doug circulates a photo of a big-game hunting conquest, she stops trying, igniting fireworks that aren't easily doused.
Hayek and Lithgow are outstanding in their lead roles as spiritual opposites, though one wishes the script included more exchanges between them.
The engaging film – at 75 minutes before the credits roll, short by today's standards – is let down some by a muddled ending. But "Beatriz at Dinner" is well worth finding a seat at the theater for.
"Beatriz at Dinner"
3 stars (out of four)
Starring Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Chloe Sevigny, Connie Britton in Miguel Arteta's drama about a Mexican immigrant and holistic healer who clashes with a real estate developer to the embarrassment of the other wealthy guests. Rated R for language and scene of violence. 82 minutes.