Coastal Elites is a tone-deaf and formally lazy film that ignores issues of substance in favor of a facile call for civility.
Anyone concerned that the limitations coronavirus imposed on the production of Coastal Elites might force director Jay Roach to step out of his comfort zone and produce something novel can rest easy — the director has not found a new approach to filmmaking under the circumstances. Nor has he made the logical pivot and opted for the “screenlife” mode, featuring his characters on a single, shared computer screen. Instead, he has filmed five monologues about Donald Trump, slapped them together, and sent it off to HBO to be the film we need right now. What could have been a political dramedy in the shape of quarantine-cinema breakout Host, aimed at a demographic enthusiastic to vote for Joe Biden, instead essentially amounts to an alternate cut of last month’s Democratic National Convention, marked by the same laziness of form and messaging.
Still, monologue films aren’t new or even necessarily bad. But as unimaginatively conceived by Jay Roach, the five monologues in Coastal Elites are tone-deaf, glib, and agonizing in both their writing and performative qualities. Miriam (Bette Midler) gives a statement to police after an altercation with a MAGA-hat-wearing tourist in New York. Mark (Dan Levy) tells his therapist about auditioning for the role of a gay superhero in the shadow of Trump’s America. Callie (Issa Rae) recounts a recent interaction with her boarding school classmate, Ivanka Trump, to a friend over video chat. Clarissa (Sarah Paulson) breaks down in the middle of leading a Youtube meditation class because of a recent reunion with her Trump-supporting family. And Sharynn (Kaitlynn Dever), a nurse from Wyoming working in New York during the coronavirus pandemic, has a political awakening thanks to a patient. All five actors in Coastal Elites lean into their hammiest, most tic-laden theatrical instincts to deliver their monologues directly into the camera, rarely signaling any emotion stronger than smug satisfaction. Of the cohort, Rae and Dever come out looking the best. Their performances aren’t especially compelling, but their work feels downright fantastic when compared to the base caricature work by Midler, who works in the broadest possible register and never approaches anything resembling a real human.
Each of the characters is united by virtue of being an upper class liberal living in one of the major coastal cities whose worldview is shaken by the election of Donald Trump, and who more often than not express a specific anger toward divisiveness over anything else. Real issues are pushed to the margins for what amounts to a series of screeds about civility and the differences between the intelligent, liberal people of the coasts and the conservative riffraff of Middle America. No, the title Coastal Elites is not an ironic wink or an acknowledgement that the call is coming from inside the expensive penthouse, but is instead a doubling down on regionalism filled with half-hearted and ill-advised attempts at reaching across the aisle, like a moment where someone’s conservative relative reveals they won’t stand for Trump’s mockery of John McCain.
Coastal Elites is a film that lacks the imagination to recognize that there are plenty of native New Yorkers who support Trump and masses of liberals, even bonafide progressives, in the fly-over states. A few moments in these monologues reach for self-awareness, but they’re all immediately undermined by the film’s self-congratulatory valuation of self-righteousness over actual political praxis. Lip service is paid to the Black Lives Matter movement — Issa Rae’s segment starts with her character returning from a protest — but it’s used as a tool to achieve such meager gains as illustrating the obvious point that the Trump administration is ignorant and desperate to be liked. Any lingering doubt that the film has anything more on its mind than a desire to return to civility is dispelled with its last line, a transparent plea to not vote third party in November.
You will be able to stream Jay Roach’s Coastal Elites on HBO Max on September 12.