Opening this weekend in limited release is the comedy The Best And The Brightest. We managed to see the film last fall at the Philadelphia Film Festival. Here is our review from that screening.
With funding courtesy of a small inheritance from a recently deceased aunt, Jeff (Neil Patrick Harris) and Samantha (Bonnie Somerville) decide to transplant their home from Delaware to Manhattan. But the transition isn’t a smooth one as they discover when they go to enroll their five-year-old daughter into a private kindergarten. It turns out that there is cutthroat competition to get in and many schools start the enrollment process while the couples are still pregnant. Turning to a professional enrollment coach (Amy Sedaris), Jeff and Samantha soon find themselves trapped in a series of increasingly ridiculous lies and deception in order to get their daughter enrolled.
The Best And The Brightest doesn’t quite measure up as a big screen comedy. There are laughs to be had here, but the screenplay’s constant need to place its characters in improbable situation and then compounding things through a string of easily avoidable misunderstandings and contrived bad luck. This happens on more than one occasion and each time it does the rhythm of the scene feels as if there should be a pre-recorded laugh track accompaniment.
Of course, this formula also insists on characters doing incredibly stupid things and here is no exception. At the insistence of their enrollment adviser, Jeff pretends that he is a poet who is preparing to have his first volume of work published. A racy transcript of a friend’s online chat activity is accidentally substituted for his supposed verse when a school’s admissions officer asks to see a sample of his writing. Rather than being appalled at the content, she finds it groundbreaking and soon the couple find themselves hosting a book party to premier the non-existent volume with all the school’s high-powered administration in attendance. While this could be played as screwball or farce, it plays it too broadly to be anything but a plot from a half-hour television laughter.
Harris, Somerville, Sedaris and Peter Serafinowicz as the aforementioned online chatting friend, try to work with the script gives them, but it is a desperate battle. The characters are fairly underdeveloped and that leaves much of the action unmotivated except for the need of the screenplay to have them do something that will further complicate the situation. Only Christopher McDonald, as the school’s main financial benefactor, seems to realize what he’s stuck with and plays his character’s collection of cliches to the hammy hilt.
A note: Although set in New York City, the film was shot in both Manhattan and Philadelphia-posing-as-Manhattan. Familiarity with both cities may induce an occasional jolt of disconnection when the production jumps from one locale to the other.