(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 was quickly put on ice as the global pandemic shifted everyday life into the new abnormal. Presented now as a feature length TV special comprised of five 15 to 20 minute long monologues, one specifically made for the broadcast special, one can’t help but think that it should have stayed in development hell.
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’s political masturbatory fantasy that thinks it’s speaking for everyone, when in reality even crickets are too uncomfortable to chirp at the silence left in its wake.
Like Sorkin at his least compelling, COASTAL ELITES is a collection of writer Rudnick’s shower arguments written out for talented actors to perform. Unlike Sorkin, who at his best could skewer both sides of the aisle with thunderous indignation, Rudnick’s flaccid observations will only be revelatory to exactly the kind of 1%:ers he thinks he’s satirizing.
The term Coastal Elite is a Trumpian favorite; a vague insult directed at liberals in New York and Los Angeles. It’s easy to remember and convenient to utter, but also typically ignorant of the fact that Trump’s entire base of operations is based on the same elite status. In trying to make fun of the insult itself while attempting to reclaim it, Rudnick actually plays directly into the hands of the right wing pundits by creating a TV special highlighting exactly how out of touch he and his friends are from common 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’s turned her obsession to the New York Times, a shared passion for the two in better days. Set during a police interrogation over an unrevealed grievance, Miriam recounts how she and her husband witnessed first hand as New Yorker’s the rise of Trump’s off-brand populism and hatred, and how, after his passing, that feeling of unfairness never left her.
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 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. Ugh.
The middle section drags similarly. An openly gay actor (Dan Levy) vents to his doctor about an abusive audition that feels like a step into a hugely timely and important topic, but which then veers into a non-sequitur about Mike Pence. There’s a clear attempt at drawing the line between ordinary people living in isolation and the pervasive effect of toxic leadership in their daily lives. Only COASTAL ELITES is not told through the eyes of anyone in the working class, but through a small circle of Hollywood actors.
As the monologues stretch on, it becomes increasingly clear that there is no longer any satire in sight. The humor turns into witless narcissism; the kind where the jokes are self-aggrandizing, not self-deprecating.
Issa Rae is placed in a truly difficult position of balancing her monologue between limp Ivanka Trump material from 2016 while giving empty lip service about the Black Lives Matter protests at the same time. The actual monologue has nothing to do with the difficult and ongoing 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 they’re both mentioned within moments of one another, because that’s the kind of fish we’re shooting in this particular barrel.
But it’s the last two monologues that truly 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 refuses to go into any uncomfortable territory, like discussing why or how educated people would vote for such a conniving monster, but instead 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 how a boomer Democrat patient made such an impression on her 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 originally not a part of the show, and was only filmed separately when the production realized that a Broadway premiere will not happen this year – or probably even next year at all. 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, where their destiny is to vote for the next old white man – and the only thing stopping them is not listening to their elders, who clearly are so passionate that they can show them 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 capitalizing on 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.
COASTAL ELITE does neither of those things. Instead it’s a political puppet theater that is unwilling, unable, or uninterested in doing anything else than the cinematic equivalent of changing its profile picture while sending thoughts and prayers.
As with Roach’s previous film (the dismal BOMBSHELL), it’s a film that isn’t actually interested in the complexities of the matter, or the implications of a much larger, systemic problem that America has to face sooner than later. Instead it sits back and marinates in a fictionalized, nuance free scenario that is solved with the good intentions of the rich and powerful.
And just like the train wreck that was the celebrity sing-a-long earlier this year, COASTAL ELITES reminds of the classic bit in The Simpsons, where Lisa quotes antiquity at Homer:
Lisa: It is better to remain silent and be thought the fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Homer’s Brain: Uh-oh, what did that mean? Better say something or they’ll think you’re stupid.
Homer: Takes one to know one!
Homer’s Brain: Swish!