If you saw Coastal Elites in a Broadway theater with so-so seats — far back, but still somewhere in the center — you’d probably come away raving about the frequent sharp writing and astonishing cast you got to witness. But then if Coastal Elites aired on HBO and everybody complained about how loud and overplayed every dramatic beat was, and how it took what should have been a series of intimate monologues and made them cartoonish, you’d say: “Your loss. You had to see it on Broadway.”
Tragically, Broadway is still shut-down for the foreseeable future and Coastal Elites never existed as a play; the only version that anybody will ever see is the HBO movie that’s too often infuriatingly loud, overplays too many dramatic beats and takes what should have been a series of intimate monologues and makes them cartoonish.
Directed with no real sense of volume control by Jay Roach from a script of wildly varying quality by Paul Rudnick, Coastal Elites is airing as a 90-minute feature on HBO, some acting exercises loosely bound in a pandemic sausage casing. It’s significantly better as quarantine-filmed programming than Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona, though that’s mostly because Rudnick’s voice is ever-distinctive and thus yields occasional highlights. As a cathartic venting of spleen regarding all things 2020, it features very few moments of insight.
Each segment, assigned a month without being chronological (and therefore offering minimal opportunity for cumulative build), is a 15- or 20-minute left-leaning (to the point of toppling sideways) conversation between a featured character and their laptop camera. Sometimes the monologues relate directly to the coronavirus, and sometimes they acknowledge that there’s plenty to be angry about even without the ongoing health catastrophe.
Bette Midler plays Miriam Nessler, a New York Times-loving liberal Jew opining to a silent police officer after an incident instigated by a coffee shop patron in a MAGA hat.
Dan Levy plays Mark Hesterman, an actor speaking with a silent therapist about a recent, potentially life-changing audition for a superhero franchise.
Issa Rae breaks up the movie’s exhausting whiteness as Callie Josephson, having a conversation with a silent friend about their prep-school classmate Ivanka Trump.
Sarah Paulson is Clarissa Montgomery, host of a “Mindful Meditations” series of YouTube videos, but clearly hanging onto her sanity only by a thread.
Finally, we meet Kaitlyn Dever’s Sharon Tarrows, a medical professional who came to New York City from Wyoming at the start of the pandemic and is reflecting to nobody in particular about the horrors she saw.
The monologues are almost all shot in a single take — Rae’s segment has a jump cut and I’m not sure if there were other edits that I missed while blinking or when my interest waned — and in a single room sparsely decorated for basic effect by production designer Mark Ricker. Four-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood did the costumes, an instance of over-qualification I can’t begin to fathom.
Starting with the Midler segment was probably a mistake. This may be as close as we ever get to a full-on Libby Gelman-Waxner TV show or movie and it’s a reminder that Rudnick’s Premiere magazine alter ego was always an exaggerated creation on the verge of caricature; handing a comparable part to Midler, gesticulating and wailing with no visible effort at restraint, only forces those extremes. A good monologue is a journey or an arc, but Midler starts off yelling and ends up yelling, and yells without pause. There are killer Rudnick one-liners throughout — flyover states, Manhattan’s long-standing hatred for Donald Trump and the artistic cliches of the Public Theater all get zinged — but they get lost, or at least devalued, in the cacophony. She’s meant as an embodiment of Trump Derangement Syndrome (better handled in The Good Fight), so I understand the frenzy, but I wonder if placing this character somewhere in the middle of the movie would have worked better.
Perhaps Midler’s excess benefits Levy in the second segment, because he’s an actor amply capable of hamminess, but instead here conveys a comparative calm in a monologue that blends affection and mockery for the superhero genre, plus some shredding of Mike Pence. Rae doesn’t overact either, but it’s disappointing how her monologue boils down to little more than a half-hearted attempt to deconstruct Ivanka Trump’s psychology. I also didn’t buy the second half of Paulson’s story, but her precise timing and Rudnick’s barbs are such a good pairing that I’d endorse future collaborations.
Finally, the movie ends with Dever’s monologue, the only time I felt anything in 90 minutes. Dever is such a relaxed and natural actress that she functions as a sound-dampening mechanism for the project. She ties some — though not nearly enough — of the themes together and emphasizes the gravity and severity of 2020 without forced pyrotechnics. It feels like an air pocket of honesty and emotion — almost a cheat given the rest of the work.
The only reason Coastal Elites didn’t actively anger me is that Dever is so good, nearly forcing cohesion onto a project that I suspect, in 10 years, will be remembered primarily as the source of one or two overused audition monologues — not as a defining text of a precarious moment.
Stars: Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Issa Rae, Sarah Paulson, Kaitlyn Dever
Director: Jay Roach
Writer: Paul Rudnick
Premieres Saturday, September 12, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HBO