All-Star Cast Deals With Politics & Pandemic in Quarantine Comedy Coastal Elites
By NEIL POND
SEPTEMBER 2, 2020
In this “quarantine comedy,” five socially distanced characters grapple with politics and the COVID-19 pandemic in a back-to-back series of monologues, rants and confessions delivered directly into the camera.
It’s a timely, extremely topical movie for these extreme, extraordinary, even apocalyptic times—in more ways than one.
Each individual “segment” was filmed separately, during the pandemic, in a socially distanced, quarantined environment, with each actor performing remotely. A punchy, prickly political satire from Bombshell director Jay Roach, it was originally intended for live presentation at the Public Theater in New York—and written by acclaimed playwright Paul Rudnick—before the pandemic quashed those plans.
Starring Bette Midler, Daniel Levy, Issa Raye, Sarah Paulson & Kaitlyn Dever
Directed by Jay Roach
HBO special presentation, available Sept. 12
The cast is top-notch, putting an A-list spin on the comedically caustic concept of how liberal “elitists” are suffering under the right-wing rigors and ripple effects of the Trump administration. The term “coastal elites” is a more recent spin on just simply “elites,” a longtime pejorative political label used to stir up mainstream, grassroots voters and rile them against big business, big banks and—most recently—the perceived affronteries of science, research and education.
These elitist bogeymen were originally based in big Eastern waterway access cities of culture and commerce, like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston, or San Francisco and Los Angeles to the West. The political divide eventually widened to include ideology—particularly Hollywood—so that “elites” came to represent a certain upper-class of people, beyond geography, whose liberal lives and lifestyles, morals, intellectual pursuits, values and vested interests were markedly different from those of more conservative so-called “real Americans” in the heartland.
Coastal Elites introduces you to five of them, all with a different take and a different situation to share.
Singing, songwriting and acting icon Bette Midler kicks things off as Miriam Nessler, a New York City schoolteacher and gabby Jewish widow. Why is she in a police station? It’s something about a guy in a MAGA hat, and her finally getting pushed past her breaking point. But she’s been close to the breaking point for a few years now, especially when she picks up her beloved New York Times or turns on the TV, encountering a barrage of news about something the president said or did that makes her blue blood boil. “Since the election, I haven’t been able to stop cursing,” she admits.
Schitt’s Creek star Daniel Levy is Mark Hesterman, a struggling Hollywood actor teleconferencing with a therapist from his apartment during a moment of a career crisis. After finally feeling fully emerged as a gay actor, he’s nailed a big callback audition for his dream role—a gay superhero called Fusion in a new Avengers-like franchise. But his high spirits are crushed after hearing about Vice President Mike Pence’s strident anti-gay agenda.
Issa Rae, the co-writer, creator, and star of TV’s Insecure, is New Yorker Callie Josephson, who’s having a Zoom call with one of her besties. Callie is well-educated, well-heeled, and very well-off, like her dad, a super-rich, a super-successful Black businessman whose connections lead them both to an unlikely dinner at the White House. There Callie reconnects with someone she once knew as a little girl when they attended the same Manhattan prep school, where Callie mainly remembers Ivana Trump’s big, fake-y smile—and it haunts her.
Sarah Paulson, whose many movie and TV credits most recently include Mrs. America and American Crime Story, plays Clarissa Montgomery, a soothing, self-styled motivational YouTuber who breaks down in the middle of a taping to tell viewers about an unsettling visit to quarantine with her extended family during the pandemic. Heading out of the city to rural Wisconsin, she recounts how she felt like a tiny fleck of blue flotsam in a sea of bright red, baited into traps by her overbearing Republican brothers. Then her father confesses something to her that floors her.
And finally, Kaitlyn Dever from Booksmart is a Sharynn Tarrows, a young nurse who’s flown in from Wyoming to work triage at New York City’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, ground zero in the pandemic’s hot zone. As she looks into the camera—we never know who, exactly, she’s talking to—she poignantly tells about meeting, treating and getting to know a certain patient who changes the way she looks at life—and the way she’s going to vote.
And then, that’s it—it’s over. Five characters, five mini-stories.
It’s a “satire,” yes, but this comedy has razor-sharp teeth. And the blood it draws, when it bites down to the bone, flows bright, bright red. So beware: If zingy political humor wrapped in barbed wire’s not your bag, maybe you should stay inland, away from these churning, deep-blue “coastal” waters.
The writing is brilliant, and the performances are perfection—no supporting players, no props, just pure delivery and straight-up acting chops. Often the characters seem all too “real,” and the emotions too raw; if someone wanders in while you’re watching it, they might even think it’s a documentary, fact instead of fiction.
But it’s fiction wrapped in fact; audio of actual Trump quotes weave in and out between each segment: “I’m a very stable genius,” “No one respects women more than Donald Trump,” “I know more about ISIS than the generals.” In such a surreal setting, we know the people we’re watching are actors, sure. But their characters are so representative, so tapped into this unhinged moment in time, this ghastly gestalt of global pandemic and polarizing politics—they seem like genuine people, people you might really know, really revealing themselves, unloading their concerns, responding to a world gone mad.
Because yes, the world really has going mad.
Coastal Elites won’t make the madness go away. No movie has that kind of mojo, alas. But it might make you smile and even laugh, here and there, make you feel a little less alone, help you look at some things with some renewed optimism and hope—and maybe make you stop cursing, for at least 90 minutes.