Editor’s Notes: Brad’s Status opens in theatrical release today, September 22nd.
Privilege, especially of the white, male kind, allows you to look at your life and not see your accomplishments, including a loving wife, a talented, well-adjusted son a year away from college, or the one-man, non-profit organization you founded and lead, and see nothing but dreams unfulfilled, potential untapped, and disappointment realized. Add to that several college friends, all of them wildly successful financially and socially (in corporate-capitalist America, nothing else really matters) and the result looks a lot like the blandly named Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller), a navel-gazing, 47-turning-55-year-old facing the obligatory mid-life crisis with bitterness, resentment, and self-loathing in writer-director Mike White’s (Beatriz at Dinner, Enlightened, Year of the Dog, School of Rock) uneven comedy-drama, Brad’s Status.
White repeatedly opts for the mundane observation, the banal realization.
Contentment isn’t Brad’s thing. Despite waking up in a well-furnished bedroom in a beautiful home, Brad sees everything through a sour, curdled disposition. He constantly compares himself to his ultra-successful college mates, Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), a onetime government official-turned-TV-celebrity-and-author, Billy Wearslter (Jemaine Clement), a software billionaire who retired at 40 to a Hawaiian bungalow, and Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson), a hedge-fund multi-millionaire, and finds himself wanting. To Brad, living comfortably in Sacramento with his wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and Troy (Austin Abrams), a musical prodigy who wants to become a composer, isn’t enough and hasn’t been enough for years, but he repeatedly pushes past his insecurities, anxieties, and self-doubt to function with seemingly minimal impact on his relationships with his wife and son.
But a long planned trip to the East Coast for a college trip with his son exposes Brad as a self-centered, egotistical narcissist. He expresses genuine surprise when Troy reveals Harvard and not Tufts, Brad’s alma mater, as first choice. Brad’s inability to get into his first choice, Yale, brings out a mix of concern and jealousy for Brad, concern because he doesn’t want to see his son disappointed, jealousy because Troy might get accepted into Harvard, validating Troy as somehow “better” than his father. That internal conflict guides, shapes, and ultimately directs everything Brad does from that point on. When a mix-up causes Troy to lose out on a face-to-face interview at Harvard, Brad swallows his considerable pride contacts Fisher, a visiting professor at Harvard with some pull. A thank-you dinner later goes just as disastrously for Brad, but an extended conversation with an old classmate/friend of Troy’s and Harvard music student, Anaya (Shazi Raja), contrasts Brad’s world-weary cynicism against Anaya’s youthful, exuberant idealism.
Even the final twists and turns of Brad’s journey, specifically the real vs. idealized lives he’s imagined for his college friends, emerge less as shocks or surprises, but as expected and unsurprising due to their utter predictability.
Brad’s Status never quite hits the high marks for insight or illumination Mike White obviously intended. While Brad may be in a constant battle against himself, an internal battle White reveals through near constant voiceover narration – a tricky device best-suited to the first-person novel and not a cinematic character study – White repeatedly opts for the mundane observation, the banal realization. Even the final twists and turns of Brad’s journey, specifically the real vs. idealized lives he’s imagined for his college friends, emerge less as shocks or surprises, but as expected and unsurprising due to their utter predictability. Luckily for White, he has a mid-career Stiller, a performer willing to play the darker tones in a particular character, even to the point of unlikability. He’s a perfect fit for the well-meaning, socially awkward, out-of-his-element, uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin Brad. Abrams plays a different kind of awkward: A young man still finding himself, still discovering how to be in the world, a young man who’s equally mortified and fascinated by his contradiction-riddled father.
Brad’s Status never quite hits the high marks for insight or illumination Mike White obviously intended.