Synopsis – A father takes his son to tour colleges on the East Coast and meets up with an old friend who makes him feel inferior about his life’s choices.
My Take – I think at least once in our life we have looked at our friends and felt a pinch of jealousy, now imagine what if a middle aged man felt the same way. Here, director Mike White provides a freshly observed story about accepting one’s course in life & about a common crisis very frequently heard about now days. The crisis this time is the only a few people over 50 ever manage to escape—the seesaw status that forces otherwise sane and mature adults to search their own souls, question their own existence, wonder where the time went before it’s over, and ask what just happened? Here, the titular character too in is in the midst of a mid-life crisis, constantly listens to his inner monologue that keeps telling him he is a failure because he has fallen short of the material success of his old friends from college. The overall results are surprisingly unlike anything I’ve seen lately, and the best surprise of all is that I found a great connection with the story, that left me touched, applauding and laughing out loud. The story follows Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller), a Sacramento businessman who looks to the outside world like a man on close terms with success—a good wife, brilliant son, upscale house, modest non-profit business he built from scratch and turned into a pillar of help for the grateful underprivileged—and all the trimmings that makes for a happy life. But somehow lately he has been fretting about his “status” in the world of middle-agers, as he and his son Troy (Austin Abrams), a gifted musician and composer, are about to embark from Sacramento to a Boston tour of colleges. This is because he has been pondering the so-called more successful lives of his college pals, which include Jason (Luke Wilson), a jet-setting, rich hedge-fund manager while Billy (Jemaine Clement) made a tech fortune and retired, at 40, on Maui. Worst of all, his direct competition in college, Craig (Michael Sheen) a former White House press secretary who now writes books and does guest lectures on the Harvard faculty.
In comparison, what has Brad, done? For wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer), who works for the California government and himself, they live a very middle class life. So, while Troy and his dad go to Harvard and Tufts for interviews, Brad in an effort to help unknowingly embarrasses Troy in front of friends and administrators, the result which Brad actually ends up needing Craig’s help to gain a 2nd interview with a dean! But, in truth, is Brad’s status beyond lame? It’s been a while since I saw a movie getting complicated feelings and relations so right. Some of the things that are brought up here are extremely true and honest. To tell you the truth, it moved me quite a bit. The simplicity of it is almost genius. Running at 102 minutes, the film is without a doubt an uncomfortable watch. The action and tension curves are close to flat, while Brad’s introspective narration is a mid-life crisis tale that sounds like middle-class aspiration syndrome. Told mostly from the perspective of a man trying to do what’s best for his son, while coming to terms with his own course in life and career outcome. The ideas stem from deep issues about how we build a life and come to accept its evolution, especially in comparison to our peers. He questions what he will leave behind and what his connection with his old friends has truly become over the years. The film takes a very down to earth approach, with us reaching into the mindset of the main character. It’s a sympathetic character with good intentions, but he also has his problems, mainly his fear of being forgotten because he didn’t dare to take risks. Director Mike White‘s writing is on point; it’s a shame that he doesn’t direct more often because he has some potential. It’s possible to see Brad as an avatar for the ills of modern society. The dialogue is self-indulgently immersed in the politics of envy and the quest to self-legitimize through material possessions and public success. He is a victim of conservative individualism where self-interest has a higher moral value than public interest. His self-doubt will resonate for many, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. Brad’s dry narration, overlaid with a glistening patina of self-loathing, might be unbearable if it weren’t also the perfect launch pad for some of the film’s best jokes, which almost always take the form of the paranoid, jealous fantasies he concocts about his friend’s lives. It’s as if these sequences come complete with Instagram filters designed to make them all look breezier, prettier, richer, and more insufferably smug. The fantasies, absurd though they may be, make it all the easier to empathize with Brad’s feelings of inadequacy. He hates them, and he hates himself nearly as much. It helps that Brad has self-awareness to burn. Indeed most of the film is Brad’s absent-mindedness, the memories and fantasies that form his interior monologue about his “status.” He’s so tied to this tormenting reverie that he’s not “present.” He misses out on the pleasure he should be getting from his son’s adventure. That’s what Melanie regrets having to miss. Worse, the more nervous and aggressive Brad gets the more he disturbs Troy, whose rigorous schedule would be better served by Brad’s quiet support. Throughout the film’s steady stream of voice-over narration, the man wrestles with his feelings, admitting his shortcomings while also trying to puff himself up.
By making the audience privy to Brad’s constantly shifting inner monologue, director White denies us any ironic distance from the man. Brad’s Status also offers some levity through a slew of amusing fantasy sequences in which Brad imagines both the possibilities of a life he hasn’t lived and the lives of his theoretically more successful friends. Such visions do more than just infuse the film with a formally playful bent, as they flesh out its larger theme of the chasm between image and reality—between Brad’s conception of his friends’ more glamorous lives and what he eventually discovers are their harsher realities. Director White is aware of the man’s self-absorption, as the filmmaker has one supporting character—a Harvard college student, Ananya (Shazi Raja), who Troy knew in high school—take Brad to task for agonizing over what she accurately considers first-world problems and yet, the film is less contemptuous of Brad than compassionate: brutally honest about his faults, yet ultimately understanding of them. The results are unexpected and welcome; Ananya serves as a kind of audience surrogate. However, it’s a little hard to ignore how the film’s efforts at showing some perspective’s are often clumsy—there’s wall-to-wall voice-over narration spelling out Brad’s every tortured thought and supporting characters whose sole function is to lecture Brad about how cluelessly lucky he is. Luckily, the film resonates because director Mike White clearly sees Brad’s faults but refuses to judge him for them. Yes, there are interludes of actual conversations and happenings and Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Jenna Fischer & director Mike White himself provide good support, it’s up to Stiller to carry the film with his wry, self- deprecating analysis of life and he does so beautifully. We bow to you, Ben! Scenery, costumes, illuminating script and deft direction all bring the film satisfying results. Most importantly, the movie truly gets it “right” on what makes a life well-lived. The whole film would sink like a stone if Stiller weren’t so adept at playing exactly this type of man, a lonely guy who has let resentment sour nearly everything in his life. Brad might not be able to see the forest through the trees, but you get the sense that Stiller and White both have his number, and if they dig into his shortcomings mercilessly, they approach his better qualities with a similar lack of restraint. The camera spends a lot of time lingering around Brad’s eyes, and you see the flickers of disgust that cross his face as Brad tries to overcome his worst instincts and simply help his son. If anyone could make this guy sympathetic, it’s Stiller, and he succeeds. Although I could not sympathize with Stiller‘s previously solipsistic hero in Greenberg, his Brad makes mid-life sense to me as he gains our sympathy over his self-centered obsessions. Here, Stiller turns in one of his best performances that is both funny and substantive, and after Greenberg and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, he’s making a specialty of middle-aged whiners who feel they’re missing out. Austin Abrams is also fantastic as the laid-back son with a clear-eyed vision of how the world works. On the whole, ‘Brad’s Status’ is a funny and inspiring imperfect film which contains a career-enhancing star performance from Ben Stiller.
Directed – Mike White
Rated – R
Run Time – 102 minutes