HBO’s ‘Coastal Elites’ is a well-meaning embarrassment: Review

Coastal Elites has nothing nice to say about Trump. But he should be flattered by it all the same.

Written by Paul Rudnick and directed by Jay Roach, the movie consists of what it describes as “five desperate confessions from people barely coping with the new normal.” That “new normal” would seem to refer to the pandemic, which is built into the structure of the film: Each of the five segments is shot remotely, and all but one is presented under the guise of some socially distanced activity.

But really, the “new normal” means Trump. All the leads are defined by their relationship to the president: Miriam (Bette Midler) is a Jewish grandma arrested after a fight over a MAGA hat; Kelly (Issa Rae) is a former Ivanka classmate wondering what’s under the First Daughter’s placid smile; Clarissa (Sarah Paulson) is a YouTube meditation guru who loses her chill after arguing with her Trump-loving relatives.

So fixated is this movie on Trump that it wedges him even into segments that don’t need him. In “Supergay (March),” the second and strongest chapter of Coastal Elites, Mark (Dan Levy) unloads in a virtual therapy session about his recent audition for a gay superhero role in an Justice League-style blockbuster. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for an actor who’s lost out on parts for being too, ahem, “sophisticated,” and yet Mark feels uneasy playing up his queerness at the behest of a straight studio exec imagining a mostly straight audience.

Rudnick’s script is thoughtful and empathetic about Mark’s internal conflict, grounding the superhero story in believable details and recognizing there’s no easy answer or obvious solution to be found. And Levy plays the part beautifully, excitement and anger and confusion and sadness wrestling across his face. But then his monologue gets around to Pence, painting the vice president as the supervillain to Mark’s superhero. 

HBO's 'Coastal Elites' is a well-intentioned embarrassment

The turn isn’t unwarranted, necessarily — Pence’s anti-LGBTQ work is well documented, and surely factors into the way lots of LGBTQ people think of their own work. But it makes “Supergay (March)” feel like a missed opportunity. There’s a rich mine to be veined in Mark’s discomfort with the not-so-progressive directives of his supposedly liberal industry, and yet Coastal Elites leaves it barely touched, eager to get back once again to railing against Trump. As if none of these issues existed before or outside the Trump administration, and would cease to exist again if only Trump were voted out of office. 

Similarly, “The Blonde Cloud (June)” squanders an intriguing lead character in Kelly, a Black Lives Matter protestor who recently visited the Trump White House as part of an unrelated business lunch with her wealthy dad. You’d think a movie satirizing clueless liberals would dig into the inherent tension of that premise. Instead, Coastal Elites has Kelly halfheartedly psychoanalyze Ivanka and her dad for 15 minutes without ever quite getting around to a point. The segment seems to exist solely so Coastal Elites can acknowledge the protests — and perhaps because without Kelly, Coastal Elites would be an all-white affair.

Coastal Elites is so busy being mad about Trump that it forgets to be about anything else at all. 

At least Rae, like Levy, is a natural in this format. Watch Coastal Elites on your computer, and their segments just about pass muster as a friendly Zoom call. Other segments are clumsier with the conceit, and other actors less able to roll with it. “Lock Her Up (January)” is ostensibly an interview given by Miriam to a cop sitting across the table, but Midler seems to be playing to the back row of a Broadway theater. “Because I Have to Talk to Someone (May)” is framed as a YouTube livestream gone sideways, but if Clarissa’s busy going off the rails in front of a green screen, who keeps fiddling with the camera angles?

These inconsistencies might be more forgivable if either Miriam or Clarissa had anything interesting to say, but both their speeches feel ported in from early 2017 despite Clarissa’s references in the latter to social distancing and mask wearing. It’s simply not news at this point that Trump’s election was upsetting to Clinton voters and thrilling to Trump ones, or that families and friendships split up along party lines, and neither narrative brings anything new to the table. 

For all the missteps of the first four segments, however, it’s not until the ending that Coastal Elites graduates from merely annoying to grossly cynical. The fifth and final segment grapples with the human cost of the pandemic, centering on a nurse in New York at the height of the coronavirus crisis in April. It’s a fine piece of acting from Kaitlyn Dever, who shows us both the lively woman Sharynn used to be and the delicate, brittle one the past few weeks have turned her into. 

HBO's 'Coastal Elites' is a well-intentioned embarrassment

But the segment is not really about Sharynn, or death, or the coronavirus. It’s about Trump. It’s why Sharynn is a nurse not from New York but from Wyoming. Like Irresistible, Coastal Elites is built on the fantasy that the coasts are populated entirely by out-of-touch snobs who’ve had too much book learning and not enough life experience, while somewhere in the American heartland exists a virgin oasis of pure and simple folks untouched by the cynicism of modern life.  

“We don’t say shit like that in Wyoming!” Sharynn marvels recounting a morbid joke she heard from a patient in New York. But what kind of jokes they do tell in Wyoming, we never find out, because what the film finds compelling about Wyoming is not what it is, but what it isn’t, which is New York. And what it sees in Sharynn and all its other characters are not people, but voters. Not even voters defined by their own hopes or ideals or principles, but entirely by where they stand on Donald Trump.

Coastal Elites is so busy being mad about Trump that it forgets to be about anything else at all. Trump is the only lens through which these characters view the issues nearest and dearest to their hearts. Standing against Trump becomes the only way any of them are able to express their love for the people around them. Psychoanalyzing Trump and his associates is the only tool they have for working through their own issues. Trump is the reason everything is bad — not a reason, but the reason — and voting Trump out is the only tool this movie suggests for changing any of that at all. 

The characters of Coastal Elites would claim to hate Trump. Miriam, in particular, claims to go to bed in a rage over him every night, and wake up panicking over him every morning. But in one sense, at least, Coastal Elites‘ heroes and villains are perfectly aligned: All of them agree that the entire world revolves around Trump. 

Coastal Elites is now streaming on HBO and HBO Max

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