Like everyone else, I’m over The New York Times’ series of “Why Do Trump Voters Like Trump?” articles, which seem to come out every other month and never succeed in shedding any light on the subject. The idea, I suppose, is to demonstrate that his supporters aren’t a monolithic bloc — actually, they’re far more nuanced and complicated than the rest of us assume. Which, of course, is true, but also, so what? The same could be said of liberal voters, or so-called coastal elites. Are the folks who live in L.A. and New York a uniform whole? Or are we as heterogeneous and diverse as our red-state brethren?
The HBO film Coastal Elites tries to thread a tricky needle, offering monologues from five different characters who, in their own ways, would be ridiculed as snooty elitists because they live (or work) in those two major metropolises. What writer Paul Rudnick and director Jay Roach attempt to do is initially offer up clichéd versions of specific types of liberal urban dwellers — the aging Jewish New York Times devotee, the gay L.A. actor — and then slowly subvert our expectations, showing us individuals who aren’t as much of a stereotype as we expected. If The Times is asking its readers to walk a mile in someone else’s MAGA hat, Coastal Elites wants to let you know that liberals are people, too.
The difference, of course, is that Coastal Elites’ audience will primarily consist of people who are coastal elites — or, at the very least, those who identify with them politically and culturally — so there’s an undeniable preaching-to-the-choir quality to this 90-minute film. Set over different times this year — one vignette is before the pandemic, the rest during — Coastal Elites is a fairly accurate overview of liberal attitudes toward Trump and COVID-19. And it’s often moving, often in spite of itself. But as someone who might technically be considered part of the coastal elite, I’m not sure I need to see any more representations of my ilk on screen. Nevertheless, Coastal Elites works, if just barely.
Each monologue is introduced with a chapter title and the month of the year in which it was recorded. I say “recorded” because, to adjust to our quarantined lives, the filmmakers have the five characters speak into camera, which doesn’t seem so strange now that we’re all Zoom experts. In the first vignette, which takes place in January 2020, Miriam (Bette Midler) is in the midst of a police interrogation, explaining to the officer why a nice older lady like herself ended up in a violent altercation. Then comes Mark (Dan Levy), who’s doing teletherapy with a fill-in shrink — his usual guy has coronavirus — to talk about an audition he did to play a gay superhero. Callie (Issa Rae) has to tell a friend about her chance reunion with Ivanka Trump, their old boarding school classmate. Clarissa (Sarah Paulson) offers guided at-home meditation sessions, but she mostly just wants to recount her fraught recent encounter with her Midwestern, Trump-loving family. Then there’s Sharynn (Kaitlyn Dever), a Wyoming nurse who’s volunteering in New York during the height of the pandemic, recording a video blog about her experiences.
Rudnick, a playwright, screenwriter and frequent contributor to The New Yorker’s “Shouts & Murmurs” humor column, embraces the theatrical quality of these monologues, essentially giving the performers an actorly showcase that runs roughly 15 to 20 minutes. There are the occasional cuts, but we never hear from the other person in the conversation, so we’re simply watching these characters look directly at us as they tell their stories. It’s gimmicky but also novel, giving acclaimed actors a chance to do something that’s rarely offered to them.
Although advertised as a “comedic satire,” Coastal Elites (which premieres Saturday) doesn’t draw much blood if its intention is to skewer a certain type of self-absorbed, big-city liberal. The truth is, while there are a few funny moments throughout, what becomes clear quickly is that any attempt at satire is merely a feint. Rudnick and Roach try to suck you in with light jabs at the expense of Starbucks and Scarlett Johansson so that you’ll be sideswiped by the emotional journey several of these vignettes eventually undertake. Sure, these characters may be coastal elites, but they’re also people, damn it. And aren’t they as American as anyone else?
Since making his name as the director of the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents films, Roach has segued into a career as a helmer of ripped-from-the-headlines docudramas like Recount and Game Change. His recent Fox News drama Bombshell is indicative of his approach, tapping into angry populist sentiment but reducing the complexity of his subject so that the audience always knows when to cheer or who to boo. Coastal Elites operates in a similar vein, cycling through liberal talking points such as LGBTQ+ rights, political division, racial inequality, Trumpism, overworked frontline medical staff, sexism, Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election without much in the way of new insight or perspective. If you watch this film, you’re guaranteed to be perfectly aligned with its characters on all these issues. Coastal Elites isn’t trying to challenge your preconceived notions about the state of the country. Rudnick and Roach mostly want to reassure you that you’re not alone in how you think.
There’s comfort in that, I suppose. I’m lucky to live in L.A. around like-minded folks, but I have friends back home in downstate Illinois who feel a little lonelier in their views. For them, Coastal Elites may be a tonic. But even so, there’s a cringy, one-night-only faux-modesty to the proceedings that feels inadequate to the task at hand. Each of these monologues will get to a very intimate place — these characters are relating something that happened to them but, of course, they’ll actually get around to revealing vulnerable aspects of themselves — yet there’s nonetheless a phoniness to Coastal Elites. The people we meet in the film may be coastal elites, but they’re still meant to be relatively regular folks, except they’re played by famous actors pretending to be regular folks. You feel like you’re watching one of those charity live-reads that are well-intentioned but also a bit showy and stagy — a stunt making a big deal of its offhand spontaneity.
But with those significant objections noted, what ultimately saves Coastal Elites is when the writing or the performances cut through the high-concept conceit, and instead, just tell interesting stories. Midler’s hyper-Jewish Miriam is meant to be a lot — a parody of a parody of the feminist, NPR-tote-bag-loving New Yawka — but the actress so overdoes the cutesiness from the jump that I wasn’t sure I could make it through another 85 minutes of the film. But while the shtick stays over-the-top, Miriam’s tale does start to go in interesting directions, even if it lands on a pretty naive, touchy-feely note about the power of art to stand in defiance to the Trumps of the world. (Tell that to all the unemployed artists who were already screwed before the pandemic hit.)
From there, though, Coastal Elites gets stronger, with Levy’s conflicted gay actor and Paulson’s frazzled liberal with a right-wing family she loves especially poignant. Rae’s HBO series Insecure is among my favorite things right now, so it’s unfortunate that Rudnick doesn’t give her a stronger piece. (I wondered if Callie’s memories of being a young Black woman trapped in a school of pretty blondes like Ivanka was simply too far of a stretch for his imagination.)
But Dever, so good in last year’s Booksmart, is Coastal Elites’ highlight. As Sharynn, a down-to-earth nurse who’s upbeat but utterly exhausted, Dever is natural in a way that none of her cohorts is. The fun of monologues is the way they allow actors to go big, turning one person’s experiences into a kind of performance piece that they share with the audience. There’s a level of unreality baked into monologues — people rarely talk at others in such a concentrated, structured way for an extended period — and Coastal Elites can’t entirely navigate around the problem. (The most liberal, artsy, hoity-toity thing about this film is its very structure.) But Dever is masterful at showing us a diligent nurse who looks bone-tired but is determined to remain upbeat, despite the amount of death she’s seen.
Part of Sharynn’s trick to staying positive ends up being a surprise that unexpectedly harks back to something earlier in Coastal Elites, a neat narrative twist that makes the obvious but still affecting point that we’re more connected to each other than we realize. But what’s special about Dever’s segment is it’s the one that fully achieves what this film aspires to do. Much like Trump voters, coastal elites aren’t just one type, and Coastal Elites insists that the cultural caricature of the latte-drinking, therapy-obsessed liberal urbanite needs to be rethought. But Sharynn is the only character who comes across as a real person. The rest are merely acting.