HBO’s Coastal Elites was originally going to be a Paul Rudnick stage play, but COVID happened, and it not only was transformed into a film, but it was rewritten and filmed remotely to reflect the mid-pandemic state of things. It consists of five lefty monologues by five stars speaking directly into the camera, Zoom-style — which may be a tough row to hoe for anyone spending a lot of time staring at talking heads on screens during their workdays. Or maybe the movie’s frustrated political malediction will offer some catharsis. (Hint: Nobody here likes T***p.)
The Gist: Trigger warning for anyone who breaks out into hives upon hearing Donald Trump’s voice — audio from his rallies and press conferences play over the Coastal Elites’ opening credits. Then we see Bette Midler’s face for 20 minutes, playing Miriam Nessler, a Jewish New Yorker, retired schoolteacher, widow and serial carrier of NPR and New Yorker tote bags. It’s January, 2020. She’s in a police interrogation room for an altercation that started when she ripped a MAGA hat off some moron’s head at a Starbucks. She does not care for Trump, you see.
Next is Mark Hesterman (Dan Levy), a gay Los Angeleno video-chatting with his therapist about his latest ordeal. It’s March. He’s an actor who’s had three auditions for a role as the first-ever gay superhero in a blockbuster — and the second one required him to play the character as “supergay.” Now it’s June, and Callie Josephson (Issa Rae) calls up a friend to tell her her Ivanka Trump story. Callie knew her from boarding school and, because Callie’s father is a mega-rich NYC brokerage-firm guy, they were invited to the White House, where Ivanka tried to talk her into being the “Black friend” who would make her look better for a public that hates her.
Time reverses course. It’s May now, and Clarissa Montgomery (Sarah Paulson) is trying her best to host her “Mindful Meditations” video. But she can’t stay focused — “Imagine… you’re not on Facebook or Twitter or Xanax” — and relays to her audience the story of how she nearly lost her mind trying to quarantine with her COVID-denying Trumper family back in Wisconsin. Back to April: Sharynn (Kaitlyn Dever) is a Mount Sinai nurse who flew in from Wyoming to help during the most intense period of the pandemic in New York — you know, when there were freezer trucks full of bodies. She tells the camera about some of the horrors she witnessed, but mostly focuses on how she was buoyed by one COVID patient with an irascible sense of humor.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: I dunno, Locke might be the only film that employs even fewer visual angles over the course of 90 minutes. But Coastal Elites kind of makes me want to see a COVID-era Glengarry Glen Ross remake that’s just a collection of cold calls.
Performance Worth Watching: Of course Rudnick and director Jay Roach are going to give Midler the most screedy of anti-Trump speeches — she’s damn good at it. And funny.
Memorable Dialogue: Miriam on the nerve of a guy wearing a MAGA hat in the East Village: “It’s like me going to Nebraska, wearing a yarmulke and waving a rainbow flag while reading a book!”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Maybe you noticed that the title Coastal Elites is a direct reference to the type of libs at whom conservatives aim their hardest ownage, and two words that make righties foam and froth, despite the fact that Trump himself is a New Yorker with a gold penthouse — it’s all so perfectly hypocritical you could just scream. Trigger warnings all around, then.
Anyway, this is maybe the stagiest of all stagey films, unapologetically and by necessity. The takes are long and its dynamics are nil. Its timeliness is perhaps its greatest asset, that and the opportunity to feel at one with liberal strawfolk expressing the frustrations of the more logic-and-reasonable minds among us. And that is what they are for the most part, light caricatures, Rudnick crafting them for comedy’s sake, because rage without laughter is a recipe for stress-related cardiac arrest.
Dever’s character strikes the most universal and poignant tones, and her bit is so well-written, the film’s saddest moment quickly becomes its funniest. The other segments aren’t quite as well-realized. Rae’s only glances off the current social-justice movement, and seems like a minor lost opportunity; Levy’s briefly mentions Mike Pence but addresses broader ideas about LGBTQ representation. The sentiment of Rudnick’s statements are intact, though, bold and underscored assertions about the need for people to listen more and shout less, to be mindful of others’ feelings and experiences, etc. The movie doesn’t even try not to preach to the choir, and functions best as a huddle for the socially and politically frustrated, a powwow for anyone who needs to scream into the Trump abyss for a minute.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Coastal Elites offers enough talent, laughs, pathos and outright venting to warrant watching it.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.
Stream Coastal Elites on HBO Max
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