‘Coastal Elites’ leans so far to the left, it falls over
Bette Midler and Dan Levy among the stars delivering monologues in a heavy-handed HBO movie that means to satirize liberals while siding with them.
By the time Bette Midler’s cliché-riddled Upper West Side Jewish liberal comes up for breath after a 20-minute plus rant against all things MAGA in the opening section of the smug and self-satisfied “Coastal Elites,” you’re thinking a better title for this HBO satire would have been “Insufferable.”
Originally conceived as a play at New York’s Public Theater by the talented veteran writer Paul Rudnick and directed by the versatile Jay Roach (“Trumbo,” the “Austin Powers” movies), “Coastal Elites” consists of five separate monologues, all delivered straight to camera by some of our finest actors, who unfortunately are sunk by the material despite the strength of their performances.
HBO presents a film directed by Jay Roach and written by Paul Rudnick. Rated TV-MA. Running time: 97 minutes. Debuts at 7 p.m. Saturday on HBO.
- The aforementioned Miriam Nessler (Midler), a New York Times-loving, NPR tote-bag-carrying, theatergoing retired schoolteacher and widow who delivers her spiel to an unseen New York City police officer in an interrogation room after Miriam has been arrested for stealing a MAGA hat from a Trumpster in her local Starbucks.
- Up-and-coming actor Mark Hesterman (Dan Levy), who in a video therapy session agonizes, and agonizes, and agonizes some more, over the choices he’s made in a series of auditions.
- Callie Josephson (Issa Rae), a philanthropist/social activist and the daughter of a billionaire, who video-calls an old classmate and talks about how they attended boarding school with Ivanka Trump, who now is recruiting Callie to be her token Black friend in public.
- A popular You Tube self-help guru named Clarissa Montgomery (Sarah Paulson), whose on-camera meditation session in front of green-screen flowers turns into a monologue about a recent visit to her Midwestern home, where virtually all of her relatives are hardcore Trump supporters and her mother even believes the whole COVID thing could be a hoax. Not sure if that’s going to be an emotionally calming balm to soothe her viewers, but it’ll probably result in more subscribers!
- Apolitical nurse Sharynn Tarrows (Kaitlyn Dever), who has come to New York City from big ol’ dumb Wyoming to help out during the pandemic and has seen things and experienced things that have changed her worldview forever. Golly gee.
The five monologues take place at various points along the 2020 timeline (though not in strict linear fashion), with the theme of each piece set up by sound bites from President Trump or Vice-President Pence or Ivanka Trump or chanting crowds at GOP rallies. The various characters grow increasingly passionate (and in some cases come close to breaking down) as they unleash the force of their frustrations, their fears, their anger, their bewilderment of the world in 2020.
Midler’s Miriam knows she’s a stereotype and she embraces it, e.g., when she brags about the accomplishments of her grown children and asks the police officer what his kids do for a living — and quickly pivots and says, “It’s not a competition,” when she learns her offspring are second in that competition. Miriam reminds me of those busybody aunts in the insurance commercial, going through the items in the refrigerator and ticking off, “Expired, expired, EXPIRED.” We know she means well and she’s got a ton of heart, but she’s … exhausting.
In his therapy session, Dan Levy’s Mark re-creates moments from his audition to win the role of Hollywood’s first openly gay superhero — and just by taking off his glasses, adjusting his posture and taking a breath, Mark is transformed, and it’s an incredible testament to Levy’s skill set. Alas, Mark complaining about his crisis of conscience about certain choices he makes while auditioning for a zillion-dollar Hollywood blockbuster seems more than little tone-deaf for our times.
Issa Rae’s Callie is a fascinating character — smart, funny, beautiful, richer than rich, a daughter of privilege who couldn’t be more different than Ivanka, and yet has traveled in the same circles with her for years. Sarah Paulson’s Clarissa has a full meltdown as she talks about her MAGA-loving family — which is followed by a contrived reveal about one relative who is actually going to vote against Trump for very personal reasons but can never tell the family. Kaitlyn Dever is stuck playing an uninformed hick (who’s nevertheless an R.N.) who mangles the expression “mazel tov,” because gee whiz, she probably never even met an actual Jewish person or learned anything about the religion and culture until she came to New York City.
The very title “Coastal Elites” indicates this aims to be a winking, we’re-in-on-the-gag satire that pokes fun at the storytellers even as it’s squarely in favor of their political views. But in these literally one-sided monologues, the liberal viewpoint is given the first word, the last word and all the words in between. The net result comes across as a cleverly worded exercise in preaching to a choir that doesn’t need to be reminded of its views in such a heavy-handed manner.