Created under quarantine restrictions, HBO’s Coastal Elites consists of five monologues that each touch upon life in 2020 America. Considering the politically polarized, disease-riddled world in which we now live, the movie’s premise is great: it clearly aims to add to current political and cultural conversation via a format that speaks directly to the times. But this initial attempt at a certainly worthwhile venture is… rough.
Coastal Elites plays five monologues one after another. The characters do not interact with each other; they’re each speaking to someone on the other side of the screen. The result is five monologues about various aspects of contemporary life from the viewpoint of several “coastal elites.”
Pre-quarantine, Miriam, a stereotypical middle-aged Jewish New Yorker (Bette Midler), speaks to an off-screen police officer who interrogates her about scuffle she had with a MAGA hat-wearing tourist. Close to giving up, in the end she determines that going to the theater is her mode of protest against hate. Next, struggling gay actor Mark (Dan Levy) video chats with a therapist about his recent audition for the role of the first out gay cinematic superhero and his hatred for Mike Pence’s homophobia. Desiring gay representation but fearing exploiting his own identity, Mark eventually finds an authentic happy medium.
In June, Callie (Issa Rae) video chats with a friend between organizing Black Lives Matter protests. Super rich and involved with running a foundation with her father, Callie gets invited to the White House and realizes that Trump has America’s un-cool kids, but what he really wants is the fantabulous New York. Next, mindfulness instructor Clarissa interrupts her own guided meditation video to rant about returning home to Trumpland for quarantine, only to have to escape.
Finally, Wisconsin nurse Sharynn, who has been deployed to New York to aid in the pandemic’s beginning, recounts her experience of nursing Miriam. Miriam was admitted for coronavirus and died of a stroke. Sharynn and Miriam’s daughter decide together that Miriam’s headstone should read “Fuck You.”
The mini-stories within Coastal Elites were each interesting in their own right, but the finished product was difficult to sit through. These are great actors and they’re doing their best, but it is very, very tough to make a 20-minute monologue engaging, let alone five 20-minute monologues in a row. My opinion may be unpopular, but I think that even the best actors sound fake when they deliver monologues. It looks so forced and unrealistic that I feel like I’m watching actors act, not like a story is unfolding in front of me.
The next major issue is tone. Coastal Elites is described as a comedy, and presumably it aims to draw humor from the idea of being an elitist New Yorker. It seems like the goal was to deliver situations that are dramatic to the characters, but to make the characters themselves so stereotypical that comedy, or maybe satire, results. The issue is that sometimes the characters some to be in on the joke and sometimes they don’t. It’s not clearly enough a satire, and sometimes it just feels like the purpose is to make fun of a whole group of people.
Beyond that, each character comes to a dramatic realization at some point: Miriam finds theater as her resistance, Callie realizes that Trump wishes he was as cool as she, a New Yorker, is, and so on. It’s also unclear whether these realizations are supposed to be satirical or not. The issue may be in the acting, the writing, or both, but something isn’t landing. As a viewer, I don’t know what’s a joke or who’s in on it, and I don’t know what lessons this wants us to learn.
Movies don’t have to have linear plots and they don’t have to present coherent themes. Maybe Coastal Elites is just doing a fantastic job at being a “slice of life.” However, the stories and characters just seem too curated and stereotypical for that. While a few mini-lessons did manage to resonate, the general result of Coastal Elites is confusion and discomfort from both form and content.
Coastal Elites bravely attempts to commentate on contemporary life through a unique, 2020-friendly form; however, its tone and purpose are unclear, leading to a confusing ultimate product.