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Beatriz at Dinner director Miguel Arteta, seen on June 7, 2017, says people are delusional in thinking they are nicer than they really are.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

In mood, Beatriz at Dinner is an elegant elegy, a smiling-through-sadness kind of lament for a world that can't seem to find a place for the serious and sentimental among us. In structure, though, writer Mike White and director Miguel Arteta's latest collaboration is Godzilla and King Kong trying to have a nice meal – elemental forces sitting in stasis, tensely waiting for the tables to flip.

The titular Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is one of the more sensitive souls to ever get a fair shake on film – an all-purpose healer so attuned to suffering that she has cordoned off part of her already cramped bedroom to keep a goat safe and sound. She dabbles in just about every kind of Goop-approved therapy, treating the patients at her alternative cancer clinic with everything from massage to soothing sounds.

Beatriz is hailed as both angel and saint by Cathy (Connie Britton), the client whose house she ends up at thanks to a bit of car trouble. Cathy insists she stick around for dinner, where Beatriz meets her negative image in the form of Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a rapacious real estate developer whose hobbies include bloviating on national television and hunting in Africa.

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What follows is not so much fireworks as white-hot flames burning off Beatriz's and Doug's trappings and crystallizing them into perfect gems of their respective world views. If some of the early reviews of the film, which hit it big at the Sundance Film Festival, have found the dynamic simple – helped in no small part by recent world events involving an unhinged developer – that may be because they're missing the real target here: the people on the sidelines.

"Beatriz and Doug actually have the strength of conviction – they believe their convictions fully, in a way that's completely rare," said Arteta, who has worked with White from their mutual breakthrough Chuck and Buck through to Beatriz's spiritual cousin, the HBO series Enlightened. "I think most of us are more like the dinner guests – completely delusional: 'I'm nicer than my neighbours, I'm a good person – but I like my good life.' I think most of us are in that in-between world, where we like to think of ourselves as nicer than we are, but we don't really want to walk the walk."

Cathy may be the ultimate example, probably the most uncomfortably funny person in a film teeming with people behaving abominably (big points also to Jay Duplass's smirking lawyer, almost as drunk on the prospect of getting rich as he is on the Jack and Cokes he keeps throwing back). Cathy praises Beatriz but barely lets her get a word in. She turns the story of her daughter recovering from cancer, with Beatriz's help, into a story about her own tribulations and grace. She is more horrified by the breach of protocol than anything Beatriz and Doug are actually fighting about.

If the calm surface of the other dinner guests is deceptively pointed, though, it also gives Lithgow and Hayek plenty of room to manoeuvre with their characters. Lithgow imbues the statements of a man who hardly thinks twice about denuding a hotel site and getting around government regulations with – well, not warmth exactly, but the kind of thoughtful purpose that goes well beyond talking points.

"Near the end, he has this line where he says, 'You know, the world is dying. Does everything need to be that bad?'" Arteta said. "And he does it in such a benevolent, compelling way. Every time I watched in the editing room, me and my editor would joke, 'He's right! Why bother recycling?!'"

The emotional weight of the film, though, is left to Hayek, who looks every bit like someone desperately tired of smashing her sensitivity against the rocks of late-stage capitalism. Her hurt is plain and plaintive. Her melancholy never quite rises to rage, but it is just as deeply felt when Cathy talks over her yet again as it is when Doug passes around a trophy photo of himself crouching over a dead rhinoceros. It's this mood that lingers well after everyone has said their piece and finished their drink.

"To me, the movie really laments the fact that if you really, really care and you really want to help people, there's no place for you any more," Arteta explained. "I think that consumer society … decided compassion and generosity is not good for business. It wanted to breed consumers and create people who are selfish and apathetic and cynical. And they have succeeded tremendously. We're all caught up in it."

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Beatriz at Dinner opens June 16.

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