Turns out there’s not much irony in the title of HBO’s “Coastal Elites.” It gives us five separate character monologues steeped in rage about living in America during Donald Trump’s presidency and the COVID-19 crisis. There’s no implicit exclamation point in the title, no self-mockery is in the mix of emotions that keep this 90-minute production in full lather. There are cries of anger, fear, moral disgust, grief, and exhaustion from the five “coastal elites,” as some red-staters call them, but nary a hint of comic self-awareness.
Or maybe just one. In the first segment, Bette Midler’s Miriam, a New York Times-loving, Hillary-supporting liberal, slows her roll long enough to make fun of her own NPR tote bag for a moment. She’s self-aware enough to understand that she’s a cliché, and the off-screen police officer she’s addressing during her monologue — to explain an incident she’s just had with a MAGA-hat wearing man — appears to know that, too. But it’s a token bit of self-mockery, one that doesn’t define the movie so much as defy its sincere and furious tone. Each of these characters ultimately experiences a minor triumph or a major revelation, not a dunking in satire.
In other words, if you are not a “coastal elite,” if you are a Trump supporter who may be untroubled by the divided, traumatized, and sick state of the country, there is nothing for you here except a confirmation of your view of Hollywood lefties, triggered liberals, and such. Written by Paul Rudnick (perhaps best known for “Jeffrey”) and directed by Jay Roach (whose films include “Bombshell” and “Game Change”), it will probably feel as torturous to you as 90 minutes of MSNBC with the volume up.
If you do feel the same outrage as the characters, then perhaps “Coastal Elites” holds something for you. 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. After Midler, Dan Levy appears as a gay actor in LA talking to a new therapist about personal compromise. Issa Rae plays a wealthy activist who recalls her dealings with an old prep school pal who just happens to be Ivanka Trump. Sarah Paulson is an Internet meditation coach whose calm has been spoiled by her time in lockdown with her Trump-supporting family. And Kaitlyn Dever, from “Unbelievable,” is a Midwestern nurse helping out at an overwhelmed New York City hospital in the early months of the pandemic.
Each of the actors holds attention expertly, ranging through emotions seamlessly, with Roach making only a few cuts within each monologue. Rae’s piece is oddly riveting, as it gives us an Ivanka on the make for a Black friend to help her build a public image as the presidential administration’s benevolent princess. She wants to hide her complicity, and the nakedness of her plan is chilling. Rae is, as always, simultaneously amusing and poignant, as her character shakes with disbelief while sharing her Ivanka tales with a boarding school pal. Levy is excellent, too, with a monologue that veers away from Trump — except for one Mike Pence outburst — in order to parse the ups and downs of assimilation.
And Dever, meanwhile, is as poignant as you might expect, if you’ve seen her as a rape survivor in “Unbelievable.” Her segment drives home the nightmare that front-line hospital workers have been facing. It’s the movie’s final note, and its saddest.
Starring: Bette Midler, Issa Rae, Dan Levy, Sarah Paulson, Kaitlyn Dever
On: HBO, Saturday at 8 p.m.