The Best And The Brightest is a satire about the Byzantine nightmare of getting kids into a snooty, $30,000-a-year New York City elementary school. Actually, scratch that. The Best And The Brightest is a farce about one man’s attempt to pass off another man’s profane, sexually explicit instant-message exchanges as his own poetry. It’s a mostly unfortunate case of bait-and-switch: What begins as a skewering of big-city elitism at its most absurd and nonsensical turns out to be a permanent detour down an extremely narrow tributary, as one good joke slowly gets the life squeezed out of it. Though it helps to have a highly qualified cast doing the squeezing—in addition to Neil Patrick Harris as co-lead, there’s Amy Sedaris, Peter Serafinowicz, John Hodgman, Jenna Stern, and Christopher McDonald in support—the farce withers away when it should be expanding.
Harris carries over his cheerful ebullience from How I Met Your Mother, though here, he plays a character more desperate to please. He and Bonnie Somerville star as Dover, Delaware parents following Somerville’s dream of living in the Big Apple. Harris’ software job earns them enough for a dingy garden apartment, but they aspire to live above their station, and that means getting their daughter the snootiest private-school education money can buy. With most schools requiring children to be placed on a waiting list while still in the womb, their 5-year-old doesn’t stand a chance at admission, so they hire an “admissions coach” (Amy Sedaris) to work the system.
And this is where The Best And The Brightest takes a turn: Sedaris thinks Harris might present himself better by passing himself off as a “poet,” a tawdry IM transcript from his boorish friend (Serafinowicz) gets slipped into the admissions file accidentally, and it’s off to the races. Co-writer/director Josh Shelov plays well to his cast’s specific strengths, with Sedaris especially funny as a pugnacious scrapper who talks like a ’30s newspaperman. But having the entire film turn on such a silly misunderstanding makes it feel like one of those deadly Saturday Night Live sketches where the joke falls far short of the allotted time. After a while, even the bouncy, prodding, ruinous score sounds damp with desperation.