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The questions of who a work of art is for and what it’s meant to accomplish usually prove germane in the process of criticism, and particularly so in the case of HBO’s new small-screen movie Coastal Elites. At least director Jay Roach and writer Paul Rudnick make that first part answered easily enough; this collection of monologues filmed in quarantine was originally supposed to go up as a play at New York’s Public Theater, and from the winking eponymous epithet on down, the writing plays to the sort of person one thinks of when picturing the typical patron of Broadway’s latest sensation du jour.
With one significant exception, the five characters delivering these soliloquies of privilege are well-off and left-leaning. They live in the big, important cities, the ones with booming industries and beach access. They’re mostly involved in entertainment, whether as a diehard theatre-lover, an actor or a YouTube self-help guru. They listen to NPR and read the New York Times and own multiple tote bags acquired as donation incentives. Their problems, such as the awkwardness of being so rich you can’t avoid running in Republican circles or the frustration of auditioning for a blockbuster, look less than pressing from a middle-class point of view. They mean well, up to a point.
But the second question, not of who but of why, clarifies the first one and damns the entire project along the way. There’s an ostensible argument to be mounted that Rudnick considers this an edifying satire pitched to the unconvinced. He makes hollow gestures of aisle-crossing conciliation, as if to show the opposition that their favored political straw people contain multitudes by giving insight into the intimately personal circumstances of their behavior. Rising thespian Mark (Dan Levy) can be whining about the big break he wants, and navigating his queer identity in a business intent on exploiting it. Middle-aged Upper West Sider Miriam (Bette Midler) rips a Maga hat off a stranger in a Starbucks, triggered by memories of her deceased husband. If they – the Republicans, the undecided, whoever – only knew these rich inner stories, perhaps they’d all be able to find a little sympathy and the world would be a less Trumpy place.
And yet to believe in that mission, either in the earnestness of its rationales or the likelihood of its success, requires a staggering measure of naivety. Not since Kate McKinnon dressed up as Hillary Clinton to deliver a doleful rendition of Hallelujah on Saturday Night Live has tone-deaf liberal pandering been so blatant or difficult to stomach. Rudnick shamelessly flatters the sensibilities of his true presumed audience of sycophants, ruling them in the unquestionable right despite their painfully blinkered thinking. The film sometimes teases the faults of its subjects, with the occasional concession of mild snobbiness or light self-absorption. But it would never dare to lodge any actual critiques. We cannot afford to realize that the New York Times that Miriam worships has effectively abdicated their journalistic responsibilities for much of the past four years, or that meaningful progress can’t come from the big-budget studio film in which Mark hopes to portray a gay superhero. The state-of-the-nation ambitions clash harshly with a staunch refusal to consider the big picture.
Issa Rae’s appearance punctuates the parade of whiteness, though her character does little more than provide lip service to diversity of perspective. She plays billionaire’s daughter Callie, put in an undesirable position as Ivanka Trump’s main prospect for an image-improving Black friend. Her anecdote makes a passing observation about complicity (she invokes the name of Kanye) without addressing the present upheavals beyond a mention that she’s just come from a protest. Her predicament is out of touch with the moment, falling prey to a disconnect that unites all the segments.
The fourth scene goes to Sarah Paulson as a YouTuber whose guided meditation spins out into a recounting of a visit to her Trump-loving family. Or so she thought – her howl of despair ends with the discovery that her father numbers among the never-Trump Republicans, offended at the sitting president’s insults to John McCain. He embodies the Democrats’ wildest fantasy of the GOP as an enemy too principled to cast their lot with the clearly morally abhorrent, a hope in willful denial of what the party has repeatedly announced itself to be. Kaitlyn Dever’s conclusion, as a Wyoming nurse come to New York to volunteer at the center of the Covid-19 pandemic, may be the most calculated of all. She’s a transparent ploy to show that the noble commoners of the heartland have struggles dwarfing the miniature dramas of the others by comparison. Even so, amid the ravages of a pandemic, she’s so moved by a Biden-voting patient that she’s inspired to change her vote from Independent. This is a writer announcing how important and impactful his own work can be, a naked display of mutual self-congratulation between artist and audience the likes of which aren’t usually seen on the screen.
Which brings us back to Broadway. Miriam turns up her nose at The Lion King and Phantom of the Opera as tourist attractions, though she belongs to the firmly middlebrow set that made the upbeat Hamilton a gargantuan hit and closed the edgy, challenging Slave Play after four months. Rudnick’s writing encapsulates and celebrates the worst instincts in this class of viewer, affirming where it should be confronting. The Danish film-maker Lars Von Trier says that a good film should be “like a rock in your shoe”, and the poet Cesar A Cruz declared the purpose of art “to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed”. In this capacity, by the basic functioning of art, Rudnick and Roach have failed. As activists, doubly so.
Source: The Guardian
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