The coronavirus-themed movie starring Bette Midler, Issa Rae, Dan Levy, Sarah Paulson, and Kaitlyn Dever may be the most anti-Trump scripted programming to ever air on a major network, says Kevin Fallon. "Written by playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick and directed by Jay Roach, the social satire begins by introducing itself as 'five heart-tugging monologues,' before crossing that out and spelling, 'five unhinged rants,' and then crossing that out too and finally writing, 'desperate confessions from people barely coping with the new abnormal,'" says Fallon. "Each performer unloads their frustration about the state of the country at a specific point of 2020, beginning in January and taking us through the summer, the pandemic shutdown, and Black Lives Matter protests. Each individual flame in the dumpster fire gets a moment in the sun here: MAGA hats, conspiracy theories, George Floyd, Kanye West’s trip to the White House, Ivanka’s complicity, hydroxychloroquine, queer rights, representation in Hollywood, John McCain’s legacy, and New York City’s coronavirus body count. A lot of it is very funny. Some of it is heartbreaking. But it’s the kind of thing that is definitively being preached to the choir, and some of that choir may be tired of hearing it."
Coastal Elites would've been great in the theater, but it doesn't work so well on television: "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," says Daniel Fienberg. "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."
Coastal Elites wants to let you know that liberals are people, too: "The HBO film Coastal Elites tries to thread a tricky needle, offering monologues from five different characters who, in their own ways, would be ridiculed as snooty elitists because they live (or work) in those two major metropolises," says Tim Grierson. "What writer Paul Rudnick and director Jay Roach attempt to do is initially offer up clichéd versions of specific types of liberal urban dwellers — the aging Jewish New York Times devotee, the gay L.A. actor — and then slowly subvert our expectations, showing us individuals who aren’t as much of a stereotype as we expected. If The Times is asking its readers to walk a mile in someone else’s MAGA hat, Coastal Elites wants to let you know that liberals are people, too. The difference, of course, is that Coastal Elites’ audience will primarily consist of people who are coastal elites — or, at the very least, those who identify with them politically and culturally — so there’s an undeniable preaching-to-the-choir quality to this 90-minute film. Set over different times this year — one vignette is before the pandemic, the rest during — Coastal Elites is a fairly accurate overview of liberal attitudes toward Trump and COVID-19. And it’s often moving, often in spite of itself. But as someone who might technically be considered part of the coastal elite, I’m not sure I need to see any more representations of my ilk on screen. Nevertheless, Coastal Elites works, if just barely."
Coastal Elites leans so far left, it falls over: "The very title Coastal Elites indicates this aims to be a winking, we’re-in-on-the-gag satire that pokes fun at the storytellers even as it’s squarely in favor of their political views," says Richard Roeper. "But in these literally one-sided monologues, the liberal viewpoint is given the first word, the last word and all the words in between. The net result comes across as a cleverly worded exercise in preaching to a choir that doesn’t need to be reminded of its views in such a heavy-handed manner."
Coastal Elites is worth watching because it captures the mood of current America: "Yes, it’s a good movie," says Mick LaSalle. "The acting is strong. The writing is funny and affecting. It is difficult to take your eyes away from it. But what does it <i>mean? What will it mean in the future? Coastal Elites, which premieres Saturday, Sept. 12, on HBO, is comparable to one of those World War II movies filmed very early in the conflict, when it was still not entirely clear which side would win. Today we watch those movies and understand that these are portraits of a people galvanizing their strength. They may have been scared, but they were on their way to victory, and it changes how we view them."
Coastal Elites is clearly theater on TV: The HBO movie was originally written to be performed live and its execution is purely theater. "So why can’t I forgive Coastal Elites for being not so good?" says Helen Shaw. "I think it’s because the show reminds me of the things about the form I hope don’t come back, even though I spend every day missing live performance. Every medium has its own sins, and Coastal Elite’s failures are the ones that specifically plague too much of our theater. The way it panders to an assumed New York audience? The arrogant cracks about Nebraska? The hero’s journey from doubt that theater can save the world to joyful affirmation of the form’s total cultural and moral domination? Ugh. TV would never."
There is artistry to savor in Coastal Elites: "If you do feel the same outrage as the characters, then perhaps Coastal Elites holds something for you," says Matthew Gilbert. "The movie, which premieres Saturday at 8 p.m., may feel redundant, in terms of your conversations with like-minded friends in person or over Zoom in recent years. Particularly at first, as Midler’s Miriam rants, I wanted to return to old episodes of Schitt’s Creek or block my ears and sing — anything to tune out the too-familiar fuming for a few moments of peaceful denial. And Midler, in particular, is in your face. Each monologist is directly addressing the camera, confessing his or her true feelings with an uninterrupted intimacy that initially feels like too much. But after a few minutes, I adjusted to the format, and to Midler’s oversized theatrical affect, and I proceeded to enjoy the performances. There is artistry to savor in Coastal Elites, as the actors surf on Rudnick’s script, which spends just enough time with each of them and which contains a number of clever punchlines."
Playwright Paul Rudnick says the all-star cast came together with ease: “We made a dream list and we got all of them,” Rudnick says. “I’ve had very few experiences like that where you ask someone and they say yes and you just say, ‘Thank you gods of casting.'" Just in case, Rudnick admits he did his best to avoid writing specifically for his dream casting, with one notable exception: Bette Midler.
Rudnick says he benefitted from input from actors and writing up until production began: "I was able to rewrite as we went along, which ended up being a very welcome opportunity, when I could include aspects of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests and how they might impact these characters' lives," Rudnick said. "There was an immediacy to it that was very new to me, certainly, and I think to everyone, which gave it a certain excitement and almost a feverishness that we thought, 'We're in this together with the rest of the world. How can we make everyone listen?' It was it was a fascinating, very high-wire experience."