Brad’s Status, 2017.
Directed by Mike White.
Starring Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson and Mike White.
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.
Though once upon a time seeing Ben Stiller star in a serious-ish film about middle-class, middle-aged malaise was a refreshing rebuke to his broader work in studio comedy, the novelty has begun to wear off in recent years following his repeated – and arguably, repetitive – collaborations with bourgeois angst maestro Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, While We’re Young, The Meyerowitz Stories).
To that end Mike White’s new film Brad’s Status doesn’t exactly give Stiller much new or especially refreshing to work with, but it deserves credit for pushing Stiller to take an uncommon lean into the more unsavory facets of his existential dread-ridden protagonist.
Stiller plays Brad Sloane, a man who is readying to tour colleges with his son Troy (Austin Abrams), only to find himself wrestling with a mid-life crisis, namely his lack of perceived success compared to his friends (played in cameo form by Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement and writer-director White himself). It’s a distinctly Baumbach-esque premise, sure, and at first glance seems patently unaware of its own potential to be a “first world problems” movie, a frequent criticism of Baumbach’s output.
However, it quickly becomes clear that White wants to distance his movie from any such accusation, with one of the film’s younger, more idealistic characters eventually chiding Brad for whining about his rather generous lot in life. Additionally, White imbues his film with an added layer of surrealness with occasional cutaways to fantasy sequences; and while the use of voiceover narration is arguably on-the-nose, it does nudge the film closer into earnest territory and further away from conceited, navel-gazing white middle-class folly.
The narration does also result in some genuine poignancy on occasion, especially when Brad meets two of his son’s attractive female friends at a restaurant, prompting Brad to mourn all of his missed possibilities, least not that he could never know these women in a romantic context. It results in a genuine sense of melancholy that just about everyone should be able to relate to in some sense at some stage in their life.
Though Brad is painted as a sympathetic character to a point, the movie isn’t shy about also depicting him as the asshole that he frequently is. Whether perplexing his son with his on-a-dime mood swings or mouthing off about his life’s potential apparently being expired, Brad is allowed to simply be a frustrating, true-to-life individual. White doesn’t make an excessive attempt to warm us to Brad, even in the final stretch, which is admirable.
While the film overall doesn’t see Stiller adding much new to his repertoire, that’s not to say his performance here isn’t merit-worthy. Stiller has settled into the grey-haired roles better than most likely would’ve expected a decade ago, and there’s seldom a moment where he isn’t completely believable as this passive-aggressive, awkward, resentful individual struggling to find a contented place in life. Stiller is especially good when Brad becomes full of frazzled neurosis, cranking things up to manic but not overplaying it as so many primary comedy actors might be tempted to.
Elsewhere the cast is also very solid even if most of them are arguably under-used; the aforementioned cameo appearances are enjoyable if totally insubstantial, save for Michael Sheen, who appears for a few effective scenes as Brad’s ultra-successful pal Craig. Jenna Fischer perhaps feels the most wasted of all as Brad’s wife Melanie, appearing intermittently, mostly over the phone, but rarely giving the audience a true sense of her character beyond the “nice, doting wife” archetype.
Young Austin Abrams meanwhile plays terrifically opposite Stiller, bringing a mumbly naturalism to the table while also cementing the infuriated embarrassment that just about every kid will routinely feel about their parents’ well-meaning but cringe-worthy behaviour from time to time. Abrams nails a subtle heart-to-heart with Stiller in the film’s third act that manages to say plenty without really having to speak much at all.
All in all, Brad’s Status is a familiar delve into the pangs of middle-aged ennui, where a man has to learn that life isn’t a competition, and trying to live vicariously through your children is a horrible idea. It is, however, solidly acted by all – especially Stiller and Abrams – and displays a welcome self-awareness that more “first world problems” movies would benefit from.
It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but if you’re a fan of Stiller’s dramatic work or have a kid heading off to Uni soon, you probably shouldn’t miss it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.