(Since this review is getting traction in some unexpected places I figured this disclaimer is necessary to begin with: Black Lives Matter, arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor, and everyone at Toisto are allies of our LGBTQ+ family. Just because we don’t agree with a single piece of art doesn’t change that.)
(Enjoy the review. )
Originally planned as a Broadway project for early 2020, COASTAL ELITES found itself delayed by the global pandemic that has shifted everyday life dramatically for everyone. Presented now as a feature-length TV special comprising five 15 to 20 minute long monologues, it just might be the worst movie of the year.
Directed by Jay Roach (the unthinking man’s Aaron Sorkin) and written by Paul Rudnick, COASTAL ELITES is a 90 minute long torrent of self-important, out of touch condescension that makes liberals look like the snooty jerks that the right-wing wants them to be. It all sounds exactly as it’s written: Rudnick’s collection of shower arguments that go off on tangents nobody cares about, with observations that will only be revelatory to, well, precisely the kind of 1%:ers that Rudnick thinks he’s satirizing.
The term Coast Elite is a Trumpian favorite: A vague insult about liberals in New York and Los Angeles, one that’s easy to remember and repeat, but also typically ignorant of the fact that Trump’s entire base of operations has the same elite status. In trying to make fun of the insult itself while attempting to reclaim it, Rudnick plays directly into the right-wing pundits’ hands by creating a TV special highlighting exactly how out of touch he and his friends are with ordinary people.
It all starts promisingly with the great, iconic Bette Middler taking center stage in a knee slapper of a monologue. She plays Miriam, a Manhattanite culture snob who has lost her husband a few years earlier. In her grief, she turns her obsession to the New York Times, a shared passion for the two in better days. Set during a police interrogation over an unrevealed aggrievance, Miriam recounts how she and her husband witnessed the rise of Trump’s off-brand populism. After her husband’s passing, Miriam is alone to wonder how New York has changed, and how, left alone, the feeling of unfairness lingers.
Middler sells the part as beautifully and gracefully as only she can. Her asides are tastefully venomous, and the snide jabs at digitization particularly hit a self-aware mark with grace. But the witticisms lose their power in the course of the overlong 20-minute opener that even she can’t save the day from navel-gazing that isn’t insightful enough to be satiric. (“I am the wall, so lock me up!” Middler proclaims without a hint of irony.)
Nobody’s driving the bus
The middle section drags similarly. An openly gay actor (Dan Levy) opens up to his doctor about an abusive audition that feels like an intermission to an important topic but then veers into a non-sequitur about Mike Pence. The attempt at drawing the line between ordinary people living in isolation and the pervasive effect of toxic leadership in their daily lives is apparent. Only COASTAL ELITES isn’t about anyone in the working class but a small Hollywood actor circle. Or at least their idea of what ‘working class’ means.
As the monologues stretch on, it becomes increasingly clear that there is no longer any satire around. The humor turns into witless narcissism, the kind where the jokes are self-aggrandizing, not self-deprecating.
Issa Rae is in a challenging position of balancing a monologue about Ivanka Trump that only has recycled material from 2016 talk show hosts while doing empty lip service about the Black Lives Matter protests at the same time. The actual monologue has nothing to do with the ongoing and challenging discussion about police violence and growing fascism in law enforcement, choosing instead to focus on laughing at how Trump leers at his young daughter. And yet both show up within moments of one another because that’s the kind of fish we’re shooting in this particular barrel.
Off a cliff
But it’s the last two monologues that genuinely drive the bus off the cliff. Sarah Paulson delivers a thankfully brief interlude about a Youtube meditation expert who goes off-script to tell about her family in the Midwest, all of whom are ardent Trump supporters. The story itself goes nowhere into any uncomfortable territory, like discussing why or how educated people would vote for such a conniving monster. Instead, it builds up to a dream of Never Trump Republicans emerging from the woodworks to support liberal agendas – only from deep undercover, as such truths are too dangerous to utter aloud.
Finally, a young nurse (Kaitlyn Dever) from another flyover state imparts a story about the impassioned plea of her boomer patient. It is wisdom, she says, sto powerful that she’s switching her vote from a meaningless Independent to Joe Biden because that’s the right thing to do.
This last piece was initially not a part of the show and came onboard separately when the production realized that a Broadway premiere will not happen this year – or probably even next year. It’s a heavy-handed, utterly insipid attempt at putting the weight of a colossally messed up political climate on the shoulders of the younger generation. One that insinuates it’s our destiny to vote for the next old white man, and the only thing stopping us is not listening to their elders, who are the only ones who can show us the light.
At a time when the editor of The New York Times had to resign over their catastrophic failure of journalistic integrity, and when the government has militarized against the population protesting against systemic racism, COASTAL ELITES is already dated less than ten months since its inception. It’s a testament to how important it is that fictional capitalization of political events happens either instantaneously (as with John Oliver’s brilliant LAST WEEK TONIGHT) or years later once all the facts are more readily available.
Because in its current state, COASTAL ELITES is a cosmic misreading of the room, one that is impossible to imagine ever being a good idea, let alone now.
As with Roach’s previous film (the dismal BOMBSHELL), COASTAL ELITES isn’t interested in the complexities of the matter or the implications of a much larger, systemic problem that America has to face sooner than later. It’s interested in presenting a clear black and white scenario, one that only the good intentions of the rich and powerful can solve.
And just like the train wreck that was the celebrity sing-a-long earlier this year, COASTAL ELITES reminds me of the classic bit in The Simpsons, where Lisa quotes antiquity at Homer: