If “Coastal Elites,” a political satire recently released on HBO, is to be enjoyed at all, it’s best enjoyed alone — seeing as we’re in the middle of a pandemic, that’s probably a good thing. “Coastal Elites” follows a monologue format that is difficult to imagine finding a place on a streaming service in any year other than 2020. While not a move that would translate easily to the big screen, when watched on a laptop from the comfort of your own quarantine bunker, having characters speak directly to the camera nearly manages to be intimate rather than off-putting. The experimental format, the timely subject matter, the A-list cast — what’s so frustrating about Coastal Elites is how close it gets to almost working. For all its efforts trying to address viewers face-to-face, the film flounders, with nothing to say.
A self-described “socially distanced” comedy filmed under quarantine guidelines, “Coastal Elites” presents itself as “five desperate confessions from people barely coping with the new abnormal” of the pandemic and Donald J. Trump’s presidency. The format of these fictional confessions ranges anywhere from a Zoom call with a therapist to a YouTube meditation video that becomes a rant about family dinners with Republican parents. As the name implies, “Coastal Elites” takes jabs at intellectual, privileged left-wingers: the kind who always fly first-class, who brushed shoulders with Ivanka Trump in prep school and whose closest encounters with racism was spying a MAGA hat-wearer in a coffee shop. By design, these characters are not the kind of people laid off due to the pandemic or who put their lives at risk every day by working at the grocery store. The news simply makes them anxious. The news does not (as it does for millions of Americans) directly affect them.
The film attempts to satirize the discrepancy between the world’s appearance through our news application of choice versus how it is right outside our doors. It would like to point out that more information doesn’t always equal more understanding. Its target audience members are the left-wingers so wrapped up in the latest edition of the New York Times they are able to parse each of the many political references in “Coastal Elites” with barely a second thought.
“Coastal Elites” would also like to suggest that we simply remedy the anxiety of information overload by closing our browsers once and for all (provided that we remember to vote Democrat). The success of its political critique relies on its viewers being informed by the incessant news cycle, only for the film to turn around and claim that they should have never have been so caught up in that news cycle in the first place.
The film succeeds in calling out the kind of activism that begins and ends with buying a Planned Parenthood tote bag, providing a needed critique of a political sphere overly saturated with posturing, in which many who debate abstractions on social media fail to effect change in the real world. However, in the fifth and final monologue, a nurse (Kaitlyn Dever) from Wyoming — a red state — who flies to New York City to volunteer at a hospital during the pandemic, oversimplifies what could have been a nuanced critique of the left. Dever’s account of volunteering at a hospital wing overwhelmed with patients at the height of the COVID-19 spike in New York casts the previous four monologues in a critical light. The effect is so reductive that the film might as well have imposed flashing red text on-screen: “You think you have problems? Just take a look at the real world.”
The message that “Coastal Elites” ultimately attempts to send with its satire is so exhausted that the film rings hollow. It tries to tell liberals that we have become so in touch with reality that we are now out of touch with reality. It tries to tell us that our political landscape isn’t about left versus right. It tries to tell us that if we would only look up from the latest Twitter debate, we would be able to see people, no matter their partisanship, for who they really are (though even so, definitely vote Democrat). The upheaval of 2020 has changed America drastically, whether it be the widespread political activism and voter suppression or the mishandled pandemic. And yet “Coastal Elites” still offers the same, tired pill that liberals have been asked to swallow since 2016.
In the fifth and final monologue, Miriam (Bette Midler), an outspoken left-winger who passed away due to COVID-19 complications, is quoted as saying: “I dreamed that when I woke up, everything was different. People were still sick, but everyone wasn’t fighting or calling each other names or blaming everything on the Chinese or waving confederate flags.”
The perfect target is Miriam, a Democrat who, by her own admission, cares less about reality and more about the way it’s talked about, even when people are dying. Rather, she cares about the words people say and how they say them, the ideas they hold and their cadence.
Miriam, and other liberals like her, are portrayed as being so caught up in debating ideology with words that they must be missing the tangible issues. But the film never takes into account that maybe there is no such thing as a reality separate from the way we talk about it. That, maybe, the stories we perpetuate and the information we share shapes our world as much as our world shapes us. Maybe our words do matter. Maybe in 2020, those words matter more than ever.