Horrible people are everywhere. Which means, once in a while, you get stuck sharing a meal with them. That's the premise of Miguel Arteta's Beatriz at Dinner: Salma Hayek plays Beatriz, an openhearted holistic health practitioner--and Mexican immigrant--who becomes stranded at the home of well-heeled client Kathy (Connie Britton) when her VW breaks down. Kathy magnanimously invites Beatriz to stay for the small evening gathering she's hosting, where the guest of honor is a greedy, blowhard real estate magnate aptly named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow).
Strutt is a blatant stand-in for you-know-who, and though Beatriz struggles to be polite in the face of his boorishness, her innate kindness gives way to fury. (His boasts about bagging a rhino in Africa, illustrated by grim cell phone photos, are what drive her over the edge.) It doesn't help that Beatriz, in this setting, is at least once mistaken for a servant. She's wearing her work clothes, while the other guests (including Chloë Sevigny and Jay Duplass as a duo of vapid social climbers) are decked out in slinky dresses and uptight sport coats. This world of haves can see Beatriz only as a have-not, not as a person.
Unfortunately Hayek's vibrance as an actor is tamped down here. She seems restricted by the sanctimoniousness of the role. The script is by Mike White, who has also written two of Arteta's previous films, Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl. The story's aims are noble, but it works too hard at scoring its points to succeed as either entertainment or lacerating social commentary. The picture needed to bite harder and deeper. It circles its prey nobly but stops short of moving in for the kill.