Beatriz at Dinner (Arteta, 2017)

A compact 82 minutes, Beatriz at Dinner gallops to its finish line while managing to take you on a rollercoaster ride filled with awkwardness, phony niceties, and the meeting of two polar opposites. Commenting on societies where rich egomaniacs like Donald Trump hold the balance of power, the film serves up a big fat dose of reality as we see Salma Hayek’s humble therapist slowly give up her naivety in the face of reckless windbag and mogul Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) when her car breaks down at her rich client’s mansion and she is forced to stay for dinner. Hayek begins as a gentle soul, emanating genuine goodwill and placidity, and it’s delightful to watch her character become more and more bewildered and cynical by the trashy waxworks that populate her surroundings. And it’s a testament to the cast that these waxworks are not dull caricatures, but very believable types that live all around us: people who consciously or not denigrate minorities and the lower classes with condescension and microaggressions, and who go to social functions like pre-programmed robots, knowing exactly how to engage in shallow small talk or brush off uncomfortable situations with a tinkly laugh and a swish of a wine glass. Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloë Sevigny and Amy Landecker are great in that regard, and give off exactly the kind of vibe you’d want to stay clear away from.

This is a strong work, but could have been stronger with even more detailed characters and meatier conversations. The film covers the usual ground, like environmentalism, corruption, the morality of big game hunting, and so on, but it does so in a broad sweep that doesn’t dig into the particulars to any satisfying degree. I figure, if this became a stage play (and the structure and setting would lend itself well to such a transference), there would be room to add more substance, so it’s all good. Oh, and the ending: did anyone see it coming? I confess I was a bit taken aback that Mike White decided to take that route, and almost wish he went with the fake-out. It’s a gutsy move, though, and I rather admire the decision, since other films of this ilk tend to end predictably.

Now, to the real question: beef tenderloin or halibut?