Saturday, September 17, 2011

A don't-miss DVD: Jeff Shelove's & Michael Jaeger's THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST

TrustMovies is older by far than the director (Jeff Shelove) and co-writers (Shelove and Michael Jaeger) and so his first reaction to the title of their movie THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST of course goes back to the book of the same name by David Halberstam about the group of pompous twits who dug this country's grave in Vietnam. Once I got past that snafu and into their movie itself, I and my (we-don't-always-agree) companion were laughing our heads off at this very funny and very overlooked movie about the ins and outs of getting your child into one of Manhattan's better private schools.

The upwardly mobile young couple who arrives in NYC from Delaware, along with their apparently bright young daughter, have no idea that they can't simply apply to one of these schools and eventually have their daughter enrolled. When mom (a delightful and believable Bonnie Sommerville, above) shows up with kid in tow to one of the early meetings, she notices an entire pew of pregnant mothers, hoping for a spot for their not-even-born-yet offspring. She's aghast. We should be, too. This is crazy, stupid. But that's life in New York's fast lane.

It's at this moment that the movie's path becomes clear: anything goes. Nothing the filmmakers (shown above, with co-writer Jaeger on the left) can shovel at us could possibly be crazier or stupider than this single quiet little scene in which these pregnant moms are told that only half of their unborns can be admitted. So shovel, they do -- coming up with an utterly crazy but very funny farce about power, politics, and scratching each other's back that is as amusingly on-target as it is dirty (the film's "R" ratign is richly deserved). And yet, as dirty as it is, never once does it manage to cross line that separates -- no, not good taste from bad, but the line of demarcation between good and bad entertainment. The Best and the Brightest is pure gold: a looney-tunes lark about how to get around the power-brokers in the big city. (That's Christopher McDonald, below, left, as the movie's Mr. Big.)
 On the DVD commentary track -- a good one -- the filmmakers note that they were trying to come up with a farce like their favorites: Tootsie and A Fish Called Wanda. While this movie reminded me of neither, it works just fine on its own. Starting with its protagonists' genuine "need," then slipping slowly into crazier and crazier ways in which to see that this need is satisfied, the film grows funnier and nuttier as it moves along.

Starting out with one of the wittier jokes in quite awhile (about a man's wish that his child grow up to see... no spoilers here), the movie then goes on to tackle poetry (what it is and who can do it), fidelity, friendship, politics, high-rolling bankers and lots more. The scenes in which the poetry surfaces, one funnier than the next, involves everyone from the admissions officer of the school (the terrific Jenna Stern, above) to various board members, each with his own agenda. The funniest (member and agenda) belongs to actor John Hodgman, below, who is simply hilarious as the bow-tied Henry, explaining self-abnegation and the need for golden showers to his peers.

How "Poetry" is used and abused may bring to mind modern artists such as Andy Warhol -- who, while he taught us to view art differently, still managed in the process to create little of lasting value (except, of course, dollar-wise and investment-wise). Shelove and Jaeger's movie makes good, honest, dirty fun of eveything from art to faux Gucci, bankers to politicos.  Mr. Big's wife, played with fierce finesse by Kate Mulgrew (below, right) is one of those politicos, and her deeply cynical attitude is held up to scrutiny quite well here. Her campaign poster, never commented upon but seen in plain view behind the actors in the film's climactic scene, is simply a hoot that grows funnier each time Mulgrew contradicts its sentimental image.

Yes, that Neil Patrick Harris is the still, above, left. He plays the Delaware dad, the movie's "straight man" and sudden poet to whom everything happens. At one point Harris tells his wife, "I'm getting better," and indeed he is. He nails this role with complete aplomb, as the lynch pin around which the whole ensemble circles.

That ensemble, which could hardly be better, also includes Amy Sedaris (above, right) in what may be her best movie role yet, as the "enabler" who helps parents get their kids into these schools; Peter Serafinowicz, as the Harris' old but none-too-reliable best friend; and Bridget Regan, below, as an old high-school flame hoping for a rekindle.

I haven't enjoyed a comedy as much as this one since  Women in Trouble, Electra Luxx or Kaboom. If it's a goofy good time you're looking for, I can't see how you'd go wrong here. Why the review in The New York Times was so utterly demeaning, I will never understand.  It's as though that reviewer witnessed an entirely other movie from the one we laughed our heads off viewing.

In any case, The Best and the Brightest is available now for sale or rental from the usual suspects.

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