For quite some time now, I've considered Neil Patrick Harris to have the Midas touch. He is often the best part of whatever he appears in, usually elevating it in the process. Unfortunately The Best and the Brightest presents itself as a big, fat exception to that rule. Director Josh Shelov straightjackets NPH with a bland and forgettable character to match the bland and forgettable film that he has created here. As it stands, both halves of the film's title ring false.
The movie opens on Samantha (Bonnie Somerville) and Jeff (Harris) as they move from Delaware to New York City with their 5 year old daughter in tow. Samantha has big plans for them. She wants to make a play at the American dream and in her mind this starts with getting her child into one of NYC's prestigious private schools. As her early attempts turn out to be fruitless, she enlists the help of a consultant named Sue Lemon (Amy Sedaris). Lemon quickly decides that some drastic changes have to be implemented. Jeff will have to stop calling himself a computer programmer (which he is) and start presenting himself as a poet (which he is not) since the latter profession apparently has more cachet in the 30,000 buck a year private school circles.
As you can imagine, their lie comes back to bite Samantha and Jeff in the butt. Through a ridiculous set of circumstances, one of their applications comes to include a printout of a vulgar IM chat between Jeff's friend Clark (Peter Serafinowicz) and one of his many ladies of the night. The headmistress, Katharine (Jenna Stern), is duly impressed by what she assumes is Jeff's poetry. Next thing you know, Samantha and Jeff are working overtime to keep the charade going. This includes schmoozing with members of the school board (Christopher McDonald, Kate Mulgrew and John Hodgman) and testing the strength of their marital bonds at a swingers club. Will they secure admission for their daughter or will they have to admit defeat and return to Delaware? The resolution is as unsatisfying as can be.
It's quite clear that writer / director Josh Shelov set out to create a farce with the help of his co-writer Michael Jaeger and an extremely competent cast. It's a damn shame then that the resulting film feels more like a sitcom episode stretched to feature length proportions with a liberal dose of vulgarity and some light nudity. The key to any successful farce is escalation. No matter what situation the characters find themselves in, there should always be a lurking feeling that things are about to get even worse. While this sort of escalation takes place in The Best and the Brightest, it feels forced every step of the way. It's tough to buy zaniness when it doesn't seem effortless.
The unfortunate thing is that the film actually starts off with a great deal of promise. The setup finds our leads full of vim and vigor. Early scenes where Samantha finds out she is competing for limited spots with women whose children haven't even been born yet, strike the perfect tone. Even the introduction of Amy Sedaris as the quirky consultant and Serafinowicz as Jeff's pervy friend build delicious anticipation of what's to follow. And then it happens. Jeff's first bit of 'poetry' is read out loud and the film sits back, smug and quite satisfied with itself. Shelov's crazy premise is now in full bloom but he misunderstands its staying power. As a result he keeps deploying it over the remainder of the film with diminishing effect. By the time Jeff reads his latest masterpiece to a crowd of strangers at a fundraiser, the laughs have dried up and any earlier goodwill has evaporated along with them.
For a smaller independent venture like this, having a talented cast would be considered a real boon but the film doesn't do them any favors by giving them weak material to work with. On multiple occasions, characters are introduced only to be ignored for long stretches of the film. The treatment of Amy Sedaris' character is an example of this. After she is introduced and gets the central lie rolling, she is largely forgotten. Even when she pops up in scenes, she fades into the background with nothing funny to say or useful to do. At least Serafinowicz is given the chance to make his screen time count. He steals every scene he's in with a rude and crude persona that simply works.
Bonnie Somerville and Neil Patrick Harris have the hardest time selling their characters because they suffer the brunt of the film's tonal whiplash. It's really tough to muster sympathy for shallow, morally flexible individuals but that is exactly what the film expects of us. We are supposed to thrill at the web of lies that Samantha and Jeff build around themselves in pursuit of a superficial goal. We are then supposed to feel for the characters as the security of their relationship comes into question. I'm not saying that this sort of juxtaposition is impossible. It requires a deft touch and I'm not sure Shelov possesses that just yet.
If I have made the film sound offensively bad, that is definitely not the case. There are flashes of brilliance including the clever setup and every moment that Serafinowicz or Hodgman show up on screen. Whenever Harris and Sedaris peek out of the characters they've been boxed into, you get a glimpse of what the film could have been if only the execution had been better. Shelov already has a good eye for casting. My hope is that with his next project, he'll be able to develop a consistent tone in a more organic fashion and really stick the landing.
Next up, we get to experience Audition Footage (9 min) for 3 cast members including Jenna Stern who plays the headmistress. While the footage is a nice addition, it is a bit distracting because someone sitting off-screen (Shelov?) insists on laughing along with every sentence that is uttered. This is followed by 4 Deleted Scenes (7 min). None of them prove to be essential but there is an extended finale for those who need more from Harris' big climactic speech.
Next, we have the most significant extra of the bunch. A Panel Discussion with Kate Mulgrew, Director Josh Shelov and Composer Ted Masur (52 min) proves to be an especially informative Q&A session where nothing is off-limits. Even though Mulgrew and Masur chime in once in a while, this is really Shelov's presentation from start to finish. He comes off as a very sincere and generous speaker, giving credit to his cast and crew whenever possible. The topic of ad libbing in a scripted feature is discussed along with the expectations of the cast in this respect. Shelov then dives into the subject of what constitutes a farce and how he was specifically inspired by the likes of Tootsie and A Fish Called Wanda. He mentions the focus on satire and how he has little interest in realism. He closes things out with a lengthy segment dedicated to the budget allocation and marketing of the film. The role of social media is also brought up in this regard. Altogether this is an excellent discussion for budding filmmakers or for folks who are simply interested in what happens behind the scenes of a smaller, independent film.
The final extra is an Audio Commentary with Josh Shelov and Michael Jaeger. Both speakers are enthusiastic and carry equal weight in the commentary track. They talk about finding inspiration in Tootsie and A Fish Called Wanda while recounting tales of how they met everyone in the cast. While they tend to fawn over everyone involved with the production, they also impart a lot of information along the way. Many aspects of the screenwriting process are dissected in great detail. Shelov is also sincere about certain things he would have done differently.