The Best and the Brightest dimly plays out like a waking daymare Alexander Payne thought up while sitting disinterestedly through last fall’s disinteresting Waiting for Superman. Because, if the plight of underprivileged children whose parents hope against hope they can earn the golden ticket that lets their otherwise doomed children into charter schools is the grist for great, if distracting, docudrama, the similar but sadder spectacle of social-climbing, single-child units bending over backward to avoid having their children condescend to the public school system is ripe for satire.
Bored former cheerleader Beatrice (Amelia Talbot) is sick of living a privileged but invisible life in Delaware, and drags her once and future prep-geek husband Jeff (Neil Patrick Harris) and their token daughter Sam to a utility room-adjacent, dozen-square-foot brownstone apartment in Brooklyn. With priorities firmly in check, she eschews tending to her own career options in order to delve into the full-time job of getting Sam into a private academy, a task that she soon finds is a chancy proposition even if you start searching in your third trimester, much less when your charge is five years old and ready to enroll this coming fall.
With her options less than zero, she recruits professional consultant Sue Lemon (Amy Sedaris), sort of a reverse recruiter for the rugrat set. Sue clues Beatrice into a tony establishment that has, for unspecified reasons that should seem more sinister, “some wiggle room.” The grease gun is thus loaded and cocked. And I do mean “cocked,” because one of Beatrice and Sue’s strategies is to pass Jeff (who Sue obsessively refers to as “bookish” so many times you want to jam a cupcake down her pie-hole) as a poet, a plan that goes kinkily awry when he accidentally passes a pervert friend’s tainty instant message chat history to the school’s headmistress (Jenna Stern, achingly Cynthia Nixonian)—and she likes it.
Writer-director Josh Shelov (working with co-writer Michael Jaeger) is trolling in fertile, easy territory, but rather than mine the subject for what it’s worth, he resorts to depressingly cheap mistaken-identity shenanigans and raunchy “he-milk” gags. The antics of the purported adults push poor Sam—and all other kids like her—into the background, which, of course, may be the point, driven home every time the girl precociously responds to any on-camera interaction with preternaturally sassy quips. Shelov has assembled a top-notch cast, but many have never been as boring (diplomatically, NPH should never serve as straight man) when they’re not outright annoying (both Sedaris and In Living Color‘s Kelly Coffield Park), but at least they keep the whole enterprise from drowning in its own simulation of genuine, Solondzian bile, most of which is reserved not for the people who would fall deeply down the cornhole for what they want, but rather for the obscene cost of living in the Greatest City in the World®.
Opening “we’ve arrived” skyline montage aside, the real target of The Best and the Brightest‘s ire is not parents, not the class hierarchies of the education system, not the buffoonery of the cocktail-poetry-slam set. It’s New York envy itself, and the sad people who simply couldn’t stomach living anywhere else. Naturally, the movie was shot in Philadelphia.