One thing that has enabled many people to get through this pandemic — quarantines and government-mandated lockdowns, mass illness, burgeoning infection rates, political fights over whether it is real and/or necessary — is television and the movies. Watching shows and films, whether old or new, has been a reliable means of escape or comfort for many people, helping them get some needed distance from the world’s chaos — if only for an hour or two.
However, as a “socially distanced comedy,” one of the many issues with HBO’s special “Coastal Elites” is that it forces viewers to try to engage humorously with that exact thing — the now — when most of us would literally rather be anywhere else and can’t find much to laugh about.
Originally intended to debut on the theater stage — a plan disrupted, like everything else, by COVID-19 — playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick and Emmy Award-winning director Jay Roach teamed up to bring “Coastal Elites” to HBO instead. They pulled in some heavy hitters while doing so — Bette Midler, Issa Rae, Dan Levy, Sarah Paulson and Kaitlyn Dever — as five people trying their best to get through the thick of the pandemic in President Donald Trump’s America.
Though politically well-intended, 10 minutes into the movie, it’s clear that the story was never supposed to be put on film. The camera Zooms in — literally, the actors speak to the audience via Zoom or some other video calling platform that we’ve been chained to for months — keeping the audience feeling totally restricted when film should expand our world.
As the pandemic continues to rage in the U.S., Hollywood doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with itself. While some productions, both big and small, have attempted to resume filming, much of the industry is still at a standstill, and many artists, producers and directors have come up with alternative ways of bringing their stories to the screen.
Rudnick and Roach then opted to take their play of five distinct monologues and turn it into a series of chats that could’ve just as easily been self-indulgent Facebook posts or yet another family Zoom call we’ve been trying to avoid. They start in January 2020 and jump back and forth in time across the year. In each Zoom-ologue, the character ponders and rants about the world’s current state and their personal lives in these unprecedented times.
Even though the name “Coastal Elites” is supposed to telegraph that the play, its writers and the actors are all in on the joke, it’s still a challenge to take the film seriously. Rudnick and Roach clearly see their work as a form of political activism — but since it’s not saying anything new or offering much in the way of entertainment, it simply feels like an endless, exhausting echo of the exact parts of our lives that drive us to seek escape in the movies.
For instance, among the cast of characters, there’s Midler as Miriam, an older woman reflecting on snatching a MAGA hat off of a Trump supporter on the Lower East Side (which feels like a story you could have read a dozen outraged Facebook posts about this week), and Paulson as Clarissa, who is beyond fed up with her Trump-loving, mask-adverse Midwestern family. But like the glamorous actors who deliver the long speeches in one take, the characters in “Coastal Elites” are glossy and well-insulated: It’s clear how far removed they are from the most disadvantaged and impoverished people in this country.
This is not to suggest that “Coastal Elites” lacks all humor: When Levy’s character, Mark, complains that his therapist coughing amid COVID-19 recovery is all-too distracting, it garnered a knowing, groaning laugh. And Rae’s character’s description of a tragic encounter with Ivanka Trump in the Lincoln Bedroom earned a cackle.
Still, just as Disney discovered when “Hamilton” debuted on Disney+ to mixed reviews, many theater works’ multidimensionality falls flat on the silver screen. Though it has worked well at times — as it did with Spike Lee’s direction of Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show “A Huey P. Newton Story” — when a play is not deliberately and thoughtfully adapted for television or film but simply placed in front of the camera, it’s stripped of its nuance and originality. After all, monologues are super tricky to capture on screen because there is no opportunity for the actor to play with the fourth wall or create any type of camaraderie with their audience.
Yes, art that addresses the current state of the world and what is at stake for many people — particularly women and people of color — in this time of pandemic and with this election is vital. Yet, because we stand at a precipice that will forever alter our future, most people, including the average moviegoer, need and want a project like this to be more than just fluff.
To remain as current as possible, it’s clear that “Coastal Elites” was tweaked and updated as the events of 2020 changed rapidly. Still, instead of enhancing the project’s urgency, it just makes the film feel even more tone-deaf.
The problem, ultimately, is that the people who made and starred in the film have the same opinion about the man currently occupying the White House as the people who will likely watch it. But those aren’t the people who need to be pushed to head to the polls on Election Day (or to speak out for people of color about the injustices they face daily).
In the end, it’s not that “Coastal Elites” doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say, though this is not how you wanted your one and only Zoom with Bette Midler to go. It’s that the audience it’s saying it to is way too exhausted to hear it again — especially coming from the mouths of some of the most entitled people in the country. When we consider who is allowed to have a platform and how they tend to use it, especially at this critical moment, “Coastal Elites” had no hope of being as self-aware as it claimed to be — or undermining the insult inherent to its title.