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HBO's 'Coastal Elites' Is Not The Movie You Thought You Would Hate

By Dustin Rowles | Film | September 17, 2020 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | September 17, 2020 |


If you’ve seen the trailer for HBO Max’s Coastal Elites — filmed during the pandemic — you probably had a thought similar to mine: “Pass. This looks incredibly smug, and I’m saying that as an incredibly smug person!” That’s not wrong, but it’s not exactly right, either. I pressed play with serious reservations, but by the end, the affecting Coastal Elites had completely won me over.

The film from director Jay Roach (Bombshell, Game Change) does a remarkable job of examining through the monologues/rants of five people (played by Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Kaitlyn Dever, Sarah Paulson, and Issa Rae) how the Trump Administration has affected the “coastal elites” both personally and politically. The first rant/monologue comes from Bette Midler, who plays a lefty Jewish woman named Miriam Nessler who — pre-pandemic — is explaining to a police officer an ordeal she experienced after she got into a fight in a coffee shop with a man wearing a MAGA hat. It’s probably the segment most like we might expect from a comedy called Coastal Elites starring Bette Midler, although even it has a few surprises. Miriam’s major issue here is how Donald Trump has so badly divided the country and pitted the “coastal elites” against folks in the middle of the country and vice versa. Miriam is an awesome, no-nonsense New York Times-reading, NPR tote-bag-owning Jewish lady who is sickened every morning by the image of Trump in her beloved Times and who also likes to remind us that New Yorkers hated him long before the rest of the country.

Where Coastal Elites pivots from funny and enraging to insightful and heartbreaking is in the next monologue, which comes from Dan Levy, playing an actor describing to his therapist an audition he recently had for the role of a gay superhero. It is sneaky powerful, and by the end of his monologue, you can feel in that moment what it means to be a gay man in a country where Mike Pence is the Vice President. That’s followed by Callie Josephson, a college classmate of Ivanka Trump’s, who is invited to the White House by Trump because her dad is a billionaire. Rae’s monologue is a searing, funny, and spot-on indictment of Ivanka and Jared, but she also describes how worthless it makes her feel when Ivanka tries to exploit her blackness for Trump’s political gain.

Sarah Paulson plays a New Age-y woman who tries to return to Wisconsin to hunker down with her family during the pandemic but soon realizes that she cannot live with Trump supporters, even loved ones. She is touched, however, by a conversation she has with her father at the airport, about John McCain. It’s a conversation I suspect that a lot of liberal kids have had with their conservative parents, only this one has a surprise twist. Finally, we meet Sharynn Tarrows (Kaitlyn Dever), a Wyoming nurse who comes to New York City to help out during the crush of the pandemic. I won’t spoil it except to say, by the end of the monologue from the one character who comes not from the coast, you might feel more than a little verklempt.

Mostly the movie is an indictment of Trump, but it’s also designed to embrace stereotypes about coastal elites and turn them inside out and find the humanity in all of these people whose lives have been shaped, for the worse, by a President who is openly hostile toward them. It’s on HBO Max, so I don’t know how much red-staters would even tune in to it, but I think it does a remarkable job of illustrating how we are not a radical leftwing Twitter mob, but real, lovely, sympathetic people who have been reduced to villainous caricatures by Donald Trump and his base of supporters.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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Header Image Source: HBO