HBO TV SPECIAL “COASTAL ELITES” FILM NAVIGATES THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WITH HUMOR

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Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic. Member American Theatre Critics Association
Member Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

This insidious, if not invidious, Covid-19 pandemic has engulfed the world in fear and chaos.  It also has taken with it over 950,000 unsuspecting lives as of September 17, 2020, most of whom didn’t understand or believe what was happening to them.

Society In times of plagues or pandemics has learned to embrace some unorthodox methods of coping when dangerous events in life’s journeys are present.  People resort to wrapping themselves in the safety net of comedy or satire, especially during this on-going quarantine mandate period of 2019-2020.   Without humor, society would be in worse shape than it already is.

HBO’s just released film “Coastal Elites”, navigates the COVID-19 experience in a comedic and satirical way (for a deadly subject matter)  with five vignette monologues, by five actors; each breathing life into playwright Paul Rudnick’s spot-on slices of pandemic life during this unprecedented experience, and all deftly directed by Jay Roach.

Leading off the first of five segments is one of America’s finest comedienne/Broadway/singer and actor’s is the irrepressible Bette Midler.  “The Devine Miss M”, as she was known back in her cabaret days in the 60s, has, over the years, perfected the persona of America’s Jewish mother comedy image, with a Yiddish-fueled saucy tongue that is blessed with impeccable comedy timing and talent. She hasn’t lost her star quality edge as an actor and comedienne over the years either. Her  Miriam role is biting, funny and flirts with over-the-top moments. 

As obsessed NYC school teacher Miriam Nessler, Midler’s take and the effect on her students and Trump’s role in the pandemic is classic Midler.  It’s a 20 minute comedic rant that leaves the viewer exhauster by her stamina and focus.  It’s ageless Midler returning to her early form.

Next Batter up is beautiful, slender, stunning Isa Rae as Callie Josephson, the uber-rich socialite daughter and classmate of vapid Ivanka Trump.  Rae, or Rudnick, or both, have a field day recalling the shallowness and obsession with possessions and money, in a segment titled “The Blonde Cloud”.  Ivanka Trump is a true chip off the old money tree block revered by the Trump family, in Rae’s scathing comedy turn.

Apparently actors and psychiatrists are kindred souls; that’s why there are so many of them and they’re proud of it. Segment three features actor Dan Levy as gay actor Mark Hesterman, revealing to his psychiatrist during their regular session his most recent audition for a role that didn’t quite turn out the way he imagined it should.

He explains that VP Mike Pence is partly responsible for the gay community’s negative image and the paucity of openly gay acting roles (could this be a case of the pot calling the kettle black?).  Comedians, however, view life’s vicissitudes from a different mind-set.  Thank God that they do or we would all be so anxious and up-tight we wouldn’t be able function at all.  We have seen this rodeo before.  Dan Levy, however, shines his special comedy spin on Gays vs. Trump/Pence in a political light perhaps a little too forcefully.

Sarah Paulson as Clarissa Montgomery, a meditation guru who delivers her performance as a sweet but somewhat of an unsure guru of her of her own advice.  Later, as we listen to her and her message of easing the anxiety and depression of the pandemic for her clients, she reveals her failed attempt to get her Republican family to stop drinking the “kool-ade” that they have been steadily gulping down since 2016 via the cup of “cult mentality” – to the now newly updated – “herd mentality” label, but to no avail.  Her dilemma, no doubt, resonates with many in similar circumstances.

The final and fifth vignette of “Coastal Elites” is the best of the five; at least for me.  It sums up the 2019-2020 pandemic POV more soberly than comedic when viewed through the eyes of Sharynn Tarrows, a young, dedicated, volunteering Wyoming Nurse – who is terrifically, poignantly, and understatedly – played by Kaitlyn Dever.

Nurse Sharynn, who came to NYC to help her colleagues fight the pandemic is the one that hits home the hardest and is the most poignant of playwright Rudnick’s screenplay characters in “Coastal Elites”. One can really feel the ordeal that NYC health professionals went through and are still going through when viewing Dever’s outstanding performance.

One must remember that “Coastal Elites” bills itself as a comedy-satire movie, even though were looking at a series of stand-alone, static, comedy monologues in the age of Trump. I doubt the Trump family or its Red Maga Hatted supporters will read or care what is said by playwright Rudnick, or director Roach, and the actors who perform as the characters.  But I do think people with a sense of humor will smile, laugh and enjoy the antics of those of the political circus we all seemed to be trapped in these days.

 Remember, a great nation deserves great art.  Support all the arts!