Title: The Best and the Brightest

Director: Josh Shelov

Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Bonnie Somerville, Amy Sedaris, Jenna Stern, Peter Serafinowicz, Christopher McDonald, Kate Mulgrew, Bridget Regan, John Hodgman, Stephen Park, Kelly Coffield Park

Most big screen comedies — even a lot of independently mounted affairs — trade in the familiar, at least on a narrative level, operating under the assumption that audiences want to see witty banter and outlandish comeuppance visited upon recognizable scenarios that are easily transposed to a viewer’s own life, whether that’s workplace misery or the fickle nature of love. It’s unusual, then, to see something like The Best and the Brightest, a movie which eschews a more broadly relatable area of focus in favor of something much more specific and divisive, and with a bunch of warped characters and an over-the-top tone to boot.

The film centers around Sam and Jeff Jasinkis (Bonnie Somerville and Neil Patrick Harris), a married Connecticut couple who, with the vague goal of “conquering the big city,” move to New York with their five-year-old daughter Beatrice in tow. Desperate to get her into a top-flight private school the ensuing fall, the pair find nothing but bemused smiles and years-long waiting lists. Lacking connections, they hire a special consultant, Sue Lemon (Amy Sedaris), who sets up a meeting at Coventry Private School with chairwoman Katharine Heilmann (Jenna Stern). There, the transcription of a raunchy IM chat from Jeff’s sleazy friend, Clark (Peter Serafinowicz), is mistaken for trailblazing “poetry,” the artistic occupation rather arbitrarily assigned Jeff by Sue in order to impress the powers that be. Lies are then compounded, as Jeff and Sam work overtime to circumvent Katharine’s objections to their suitability for Coventry’s single open slot, and convince a randy, philandering board member (Christopher McDonald) and his politico wife (Kate Mulgrew) of the deserving nature of their daughter.

The cast certainly delivers some amusing performances. Recent Tony Awards host Harris has impeccable comic timing, and wields his lines smartly. Similarly, Sedaris — though playing a needlessly amped character whose caffeinated energy hijacks a couple scenes — has a knack for locating small, telling bits of physical humor or canted inflection amidst her torrent of dialogue. McDonald and Mulgrew, meanwhile, evince a nice rapport as a rich, for-show couple who take delight in needling and cutting down one another (Sample exchange: “I don’t care what anyone says, you looked hetero as hell out there.” “My God, you’re droll…”), all with the knowledge that their arrangement benefits a lavish lifestyle.

Working from a script co-written with Michael Jaeger, Josh Shelov, making his feature film directorial debut, oversees a production of undoubtedly challenged means, so there isn’t a lot of visual flash or pizzazz, which might have benefited the material. The novelty of setting most recommends this effort, honestly. While a lot of its dialogue pops, the movie’s chief problem, really, is the fact that it doesn’t seem to wholly embrace the arguably detestable nature of its characters. Having the best interests of one’s child at heart is a universal story or concern; maniacally charting the trajectory of their elite education before grade school considerably less so.

The Best and the Brightest, then, has some fun with Sam’s increasing fretfulness and histrionics, and stands for a while on the precipice of something darker, of all-out lunacy. A lot of these characters are sociopathic, deranged and/or wildly irresponsible, but Shelov only occasionally fully cashes in those traits. With demented book club readings, the arrival of one of Clark’s women-of-the-night conquests, and a venture to a swinger’s club that requires Jeff to enlist the play-along assistance of an old high school crush, Robin (Bridget Regan), the film has all the ingredients of a madcap farce — a sort of sexed-up, education-and-literary-world Noises Off, wherein all its players lose their marbles in pursuit of something they eventually can’t even remember. But no, the movie finally pulls back, and tries to cash in on Jeff and Sam’s relationship in an awkward stab at emotionalism, and then have them win the day by outmaneuvering some potential parental rivals (Kelly Coffield Park and Stephen Park). The Best and the Brightest would be better if it were bit darker, and not about any of the best instincts of parental protection, but instead more wholly their corruptive influence.

Technical: C

Acting: B-

Story: C+

Overall: C+

Written by: Brent Simon

The Best and the Brightest

By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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