I’ve been coming to the Sundance Film Festival since 1995, and if you asked me to pick the most audacious film I’ve ever seen here, it would probably be “Chuck & Buck,” the thrillingly twisted — but humane! — arrested-development stalker love story written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta. (White also starred in it.) It played here in 2000, and though other films grabbed bigger headlines, it was enough of a landmark that White and Arteta recognized what they’d brought out in each other and decided to team up again. Two years later, they were back with “The Good Girl,” a solid but much safer comedy (it starred Jennifer Aniston). Now, after 15 years, they’ve reunited for “Beatriz at Dinner,” a small-scale but elegantly deft squirmfest that features a luminous performance by Salma Hayek. It also has the distinction of being the first dramatic comedy that’s an explicit — and provocative — allegory of the Age of Trump.
Hayek plays Beatriz, a Los Angeles massage therapist and holistic healer enveloped in the hush of her own sad solitude. She’s saintly and girlish (even though Hayek is now 50), sort of like a nun, and she lives with her dogs and goats, one of which was recently strangled by her next door neighbor. That sounds like a black-comic Mike White jape, but Beatriz is not a character with a sense of humor, and the movie never laughs at her. It does, however, look at her with a teasing sense of mystery. Hayek, in bangs and a plain blue shirt, makes Beatriz a gravely soulful presence, always staring into the middle distance, as if she had seen a vision. At first she doesn’t say much (that will change), but what’s going on with Beatriz — who she is, what she wants — is the film’s playfully suspenseful enigma.
After making her rounds at the Arendale Cancer Center, an alternative-medicine facility where she has an office, Beatriz drives her puttering old Volkswagen up to the palatial seaside mansion of one of her clients, Cathy (Connie Britton), whose teenage daughter she helped to care for when the girl was recovering from chemo. Beatriz is the help, but she’s also a “friend of the family,” so when the VW breaks down, Cathy invites her to stay for dinner. Even though it’s a business dinner. With a lot riding on it. In which Cathy and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), will be hosting the legendary real-estate mogul Doug Strutt (John Lithgow).
Arteta, who has spent most of the years since “Chuck & Buck” working in television (though he did make the darkly imaginative Michael Cera comedy “Youth in Revolt”), has a gift for knowing how long to hold a shot, for when to keep the characters at a middle distance or draw them in close. Cathy and Grant’s guests start arriving, in their tacky splendor and vulgar conversation (with Jay Duplass as the biggest putz on hand), and as soon as Beatriz starts to greet each one of them with a Buddhist hug, we can tell where the movie is going: Beatriz, who has zero in common with these swells, is going to be the spoiler, the fly in the ointment. Everyone is drinking, so she starts having glass after glass of white wine, and that’s enough to buzz her into becoming …
The Mike White pest! The “innocent” passive-aggressive wallflower who somehow finds a way to slam her ego into the center of things. As soon as she starts babbling at the dinner table, it’s awkward, but the real trouble arrives when she looks at Lithgow’s merciless tycoon and thinks that she knows him. But from where? Was he the one who built a luxury hotel in her Mexican village, chasing people out of their homes?
If so, the coincidence might seem contrived, but White’s script is cleverer than that. Strutt is portrayed as a voracious pig who is all about acquiring, dominating, destroying, and taking pride in how little he could care about who gets hurt. You could say that he’s a satire of Trump, and you wouldn’t be wrong (you don’t introduce a character who’s a real-estate baron, and who talks about razing land before anyone can discover he’s done anything unconscionable, without expecting people to make the connection), but he’s really a takeoff on the spirit of Trump. Lithgow frees him from cliché by making him, beneath the greedy bluster, more reasonable than you’d expect: a titan who can afford to be polite, because he knows that he’s going to crush you anyway. This actor understands power from the inside; he doesn’t just act it — he chews on it and savors it. Beatriz, who’s got his number, is his opposite spirit: the immigrant who wants vengeance. It’s a situation wired for a showdown, and the movie is like a comic fuse that sizzles until it detonates.
Mike White broke through to audacity again in the HBO series “Enlightened,” but in his film scripts, it’s become a little too easy to make out the pattern, the crafted design. That was true even in “School of Rock” — though Jack Black and Richard Linklater, while remaining true to White’s rock-is-now-for-kids concept, made it shake, rattle, and roll. In “Beatriz at Dinner,” White and Arteta are an infectious team again, and they’ve created the kind of Trump-tweaking film that specialty audiences will surely want in 2017: one that says there are two American destinies now, and that we’ll have to choose between them. Hayek’s performance, by the end, grows unexpectedly moving. Yet “Beatriz at Dinner” is a little tidy. It seizes and charms without soaring.