The Best and the Brightest
Best and the Brightest, The (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Jeff (Neil Patrick Harris) and Samantha (Bonnie Somerville) have recently moved to New York City from Delaware with Beatrice (Amelia Talbot), their five-year-old daughter. It is Samantha’s dream to send her little bundle of joy to an elite kindergarten school but, due to a long wait list and strong competition, the snobbish institutions claim they have no room for her. So, the couple turn to Sue Lemon (Amy Sedaris), a snappy, sassy specialist whose job is to find loopholes in order to get rejected kids into elite private schools.
“The Best and the Brightest,” written by Josh Shelov and Michael Jaeger, does not work as a satire of the eccentric Upper East Side parents obsessed with wealth and so-called success because there is not a variety of characters. In addition, the characters we are presented with are very thinly established and, in the end, just bad imitations of sitcom degenerates who live in a bubble and happy to be in one.
Jeff and Sue are the only interesting people to watch here, mostly because the actors inject a certain level of energy in their roles. Harris is believable as a sensitive father who pretends to be a poet in order to impress Katharine Heilmann (Jenna Stern), the headmistress of the school. I couldn’t help but be drawn to his character because he is given a semblance of selflessness. He wants what is best for his daughter, but he also wishes to make his wife happy perhaps because he feels guilty about uprooting his family. If it means, for a time, following his wife’s ridiculous demands, then he does so with a smile on his face. But this does not mean he is a pushover. Meanwhile, Sedaris infuses her character with a bit of mania. Sue’s one-liners come hard and fast, sometimes offensive but mostly not, and I was amused by her ability to exaggerate the truth.
However, the two performances are not enough to keep the vessel afloat. There is a subplot involving Jeff’s past girlfriend which does not work at all because this is supposed to be a movie about the lengths parents are willing to go to ensure their child attends a “good” school. It takes away the focus required for a barely breathing comedy to subsist. Furthermore, I found it curious that the material does not feature more types of parents. Diversity is what the film sorely lacks. Surely the Upper East Side has posh African-American parents or maybe even uppity gay and lesbian parents. Diversity is hand-in-hand with different level of expectations. The film’s subject matter has the opportunity to be offensive, push the envelope, and the filmmakers shouldn’t have to feel bad about it.
Instead, we endure watching pointless charades involving board members of the school (Christopher McDonald, Kate Mulgrew) attending a book club and–can you believe it–a swingers club. I felt the writers desperately scraping the bottom of the barrel. There is nothing particularly smart or funny about the whole thing. I just felt angry because a promising material slowly devolves into, at best, a ten-minute undeservingly green-lit sitcom stretched out into thirty minutes of misery because twenty minutes of commercials would have been too noticeable.
“The Best and the Brightest,” directed by Josh Shelov, is afraid to get down and dirty. As a person who’s had some experience working with students from kindergarten to senior year in high school, I know that Jeff and Samantha’s concerns about public schools going down the drain are very real. But for those who haven’t, since the film does not do a good job in acknowledging and, more importantly, showing the state of public schools in America, I’m afraid most people will assume the tragedy is not already here.