COASTAL ELITES. Maybe this will be the one, among many little-read movie columns in a left-leaning but ultimately centrist alternative weekly newspaper from the charred western slope of the former U.S., that gets me on the list. I am not egotistical enough to imagine I'll go to the camp with the first or second tier writers and thinkers. It's possible the collapse will halt the widestream dissemination of information and opinion altogether, that chaos will displace totalitarianism and we'll all be fighting over potable water. Precedent indicates, though, that criticism of any kind — speaking to a willingness to consider multiple points of view — invites criticism and, in the poisonous echo-chamber of social media culture, an easy way to get noticed. And so, sooner or later, those of us who voice our support for art like Coastal Elites might find ourselves subject to a "casual interview," Joseph McCarthy/Hans Landa style. This assumes solid record keeping by a failed state attempting to recast itself as a proto-capitalist, fascist, idiot monoculture, so maybe not; seems like anything could happen.
Director Jay Roach and writer Paul Rudnick have made what we once called a TV movie, though the boundaries grow ever less distinct, and this one is very much of its moment, thus hard to classify. Roach, best known for broad comedies (the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents' series), shook me by the lapels last year with Bombshell — a revelatory movie underwatched by liberals because it's about Fox News and underwatched by conservatives because, well. Shame on both camps for ignoring its exploration and explication of our culture of misogyny, hyper-sexualization, commercialization of media and corporate influence over government. Rudnick also has some well-known work on his CV, including the Sister Act movies and the 2004 adaptation of The Stepford Wives. He's neither stranger nor slouch, but he hasn't been quite as active as Roach lately.
Roach has been making political — Comedies? Satire? Tragic reflections on modern slow-motion catastrophe? — for HBO for years now. First Recount (2008), then Game Change (2012) and now Coastal Elites. He wears his politics on his sleeve and seems an easy mark for easier criticism, but he also pursues his subjects with such even-handedness, compassion and humanity that, at its best, his work transcends politicization and gets at the heart of issues cheapened by the erosion of our national — international? — discourse. And he's not shy about it, naming the movie using the very language of its protagonists' detractors.
Coastal Elites is a movie entirely of and about the entropy of America in 2020. Produced remotely in quarantine, it consists of five monologues spoken directly into the camera. Miriam Nessler (Bette Midler), a self-described liberal Jewish lady from New York City, speaks to us from January of this year (who'd have thought we'd look back on it as a simpler time?) in an interrogation room after absconding with a MAGA hat on her way to the theater. Over the course of her police "interview," she becomes the proxy voice of her city, celebrating the social and cultural landmarks and advances that have defined it, while decrying the active, aggressive war being waged against them.
Next, Mark Hestermann (Dan Levy) Zooms into an emergency session with a fill-in therapist. He's a middling-successful Los Angeles actor short-listed to star as the first openly gay superhero in a major studio tent-pole. He feels as though he has sold himself out in his second audition, pandering to the casting people with a broad, stereotypical version of the character which, of course, they found perfect. He pours out and pores over his conflicting impulses and emotions, attempting to process his identity as a gay man in Hollywood, let alone in modern America.
Issae Rae plays Callie Josephson, daughter of a very wealthy businessman with intimate access to the first family. Callie, in fact, attended boarding school with Ivanka and rushes breathlessly in from a protest to call a friend and tell her all about a recent visit to the White House. She succinctly describes the tone-deafness and cultural illiteracy of a family/administration so narcissistic it cannot see the damage done by their actions and inactions. Ivanka wants Callie to come on board to help her win over the disenfranchised; no deal.
Clarissa Montgomery (Sarah Paulson) is introduced in the context of her online guided meditation series. Problem is, she has returned home to shelter-in-place with her red-hat family to initially disastrous results. As she details the existential crisis that has become the new normal, though, she eventually comes to describe a moment with her seemingly hard-line, Vietnam veteran father wherein he confides, insisting on secrecy, that he too loathes the President, albeit for a very different reason.
Finally, Sharynn Tarrows (Kaitlyn Devers), a nurse from Wyoming who went to New York to lend a hand on the front lines, records what appears to be a video diary entry. She's just come off a shift with plans to return home the next day and details a harrowing, heartbreaking relationship with a patient.
Coastal Elites speaks to the choir, sure. But the hope would be that somebody will see past the manufactured divisions among us, listen to some other than the chorus of like-minded voices on their phone, and consider that kindness and inclusion are fundamental and important values to uphold, regardless of affiliation or border or any other, manufactured distinction. What are the odds? TVMA. 88M. HBO.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.