Offering a fitfully funny sitcom plot clumsily stretched to 90 minutes, then goosed with increasingly tiresome doses of smuttiness and political incorrectness, “The Best and the Brightest” is neither. Nominally concerned with — and most consistently amusing when dealing with — the Machiavellian struggles to land a spot in an exclusive Manhattan private school, pic could show some legs on homevid or VOD, given its overachieving, overqualified cast, but its remedial structure and sophomoric crudity knock it back a few grades.
The film opens on young parents Jeff (Neil Patrick Harris) and Samantha (Bonnie Somerville) as they relocate from Delaware to Manhattan with their kindergarten-aged daughter Beatrice (Amelia Talbot). Discovering that most of the city’s best prep schools require parents to apply while their children are still in vitro, Samantha recruits super-peppy admissions coach Sue Lemon (Amy Sedaris) to grease the wheels. (Pic’s a priori dismissal of attending public school as a fate worse than death is a bit too flippant to be completely laughed off as satire, as are its frequent jokes at the expense of Latina housekeepers and sundry other immigrants and poor people.)
At Sue’s urging, Jeff takes on a fraudulent identity as a soon-to-be-published poet to help the family fight for the last available spot in the last available school, placing themselves at the mercy of Ilsa-like admissions chair Katharine Heilmann (Jenna Stern). Due to the first of many groanable mixups, an X-rated instant-message transcript from Jeff’s wastrel buddy (Peter Serafinowicz) is submitted as an example of Jeff’s verse and hailed as genius by the admissions board.
The joke is actually pretty funny at first, but it weirdly comes to consume the entire film, as a subsequent book club meeting and poetry reading return to the well of “uptight bluebloods saying obscene things” with a frequency even Rodney Dangerfield would have found excessive. With the school admissions plot and Beatrice’s presence oncamera becoming increasingly marginal, the film gives way to full-fledged raunchy slapstick, culminating in a late plot twist involving a swinger’s club that serves little purpose aside from correcting the pic’s previous lack of nudity.
The cast consists almost entirely of proven players, though Harris and Somerville are unwisely limited to straight-man roles here (especially odd considering the former’s well-known comic gifts), with Christopher McDonald, Sedaris and Serafinowicz putting in hit-and-miss turns as their wilder counterparts. Particularly underserved by the film are John Hodgman and Bridget Regan, who make the most of their roles as bit-part nebbish and bit-part breast owner, respectively.
Pic’s Philadelphia locations stand in for Gotham moderately well, and technical specs are adequate.