Film Review: Brad’s Status

by Carrie Kahn on September 22, 2017

A midlife crisis worth watching: Stiller shines in funny and poignant story  

Brad (Ben Stiller, l.) reflects on his life while touring colleges with his son Troy (Austin Abrams). 

Ben Stiller, who can play middle-age angst like no one else (see While We’re Young, for example), is in fine form in writer/director Mike White’s new film Brad’s Status. Although the film’s premise about a soon-to-be-50 straight white man facing an existential crisis as he grapples with his life choices may sound like the epitome of naval-gazing white privilege, the picture touches on some universal themes with sensitivity and wry humor, thanks in large part to Stiller’s well-tuned performance and White’s sharp screenplay (White is perhaps best known for the 2000 cult hit Chuck and Buck and this year’s social satire Beatriz at Dinner).

When we meet Brad (Stiller), he’s a middle class non-profit owner living in Sacramento (or, as Brad refers to it, in one of White’s more biting lines, “a secondary market surrounded by mediocrity”) in a perfectly nice house with a perfectly nice wife (Jenna Fischer) and a perfectly nice teenage son, Troy (Austin Abrams). Brad’s spiritual and psychological melt down kicks into high gear when he takes Troy on an east coast college tour; Troy is a budding musician, and has a roster of premiere colleges he wants to visit.

The college tour of course spins Brad out even more, causing him to reminisce about his own east coast college days (he’s a Tufts man), and ruminate on – and compare himself to – his college pals (a slight Big Chill vibe pervades this story element). Craig (Michael Sheen, delightfully insufferable) is a former White House press secretary and current political pundit; Billy (Jemaine Clement, droll as ever) is an early retiree tech millionaire living the high life; Jason (Luke Wilson) is a hedge fund manager with a picture perfect family, and Nick (White himself) is a successful film director hobnobbing with the Hollywood crowd.

Billy (Jemaine Clement) catches up with his old college buddy Brad.

In poignant and often humorous voice overs (some of which actually begin Carrie Bradshaw style with, “I couldn’t help but wonder – ”, in one of White’s few screenplay missteps), Brad alternates between feeling sorry for himself, envying his friends, and wondering if he should have – or could have – done more with his life. The fact that Brad also finds himself envious of his own son – an 18-year-old with his whole life about to unfold – also unnerves and horrifies Brad.

Brad’s angst and worries come to life on screen via vivid fantasies he has throughout the film (in a technique reminiscent of the 2013 Stiller picture The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which also used the method well), and these fantasy scenes are some of the funniest and best in the movie. They also help keep us from rolling our eyes too much at Brad’s pity party; who among us hasn’t imagined the seemingly ideal lives of our friends, only to have our visions shatter when reality intrudes? That’s what happens to Brad here, as, one by one, he realizes that each of his friends has his own issues to deal with, as so do even the most successful and flawless among us. A scene in which Brad meets Craig for dinner is a particular highlight, as Brad finally clearly sees Craig for who he is – a pompous, self-absorbed, and petty man (all of which Sheen conveys with gleeful relish).

Melanie (Jenna Fischer) is Brad’s down to earth, loving wife.

And when Brad thinks he is connecting with college student Ananya (Shazi Raja), a smart, idealistic, but grounded friend of Troy’s, only to have her call him out in a rather pointed, but ultimately accurate way, Brad begins to slowly awaken from the malaise that’s been weighing on him for years. Cathartic release comes shortly after, when Brad attends a symphony concert with Troy; it’s a beautifully calibrated scene, as both White and Stiller take a moment that easily could have been a mawkish cliché and make it something raw, true, and deeply human.

Though ostensibly about a man struggling to accept himself and the life he’s created, the film also works well, and perhaps, in some ways, even better, as a lovely meditation on fatherhood. Stiller and Abrams have a natural and easy rapport, and it’s easy to buy them as father and son. Abrams’s performance here is on par with Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea; both play young men on the cusp of adulthood, eager to assert their independence with often silent and moody turns, but also still very much needing and craving the love and attention of their father figures.

“Don’t ask me to feel bad for you… you’re doing just fine – you have enough,” Ananya rebukes Brad at one point, and as Brad ponders that, so do we. Brad has a stable, meaningful career, a wife and son who love him, and a comfortable life. Does he have any right to complain? To be unhappy? Do any of us in similar situations? Those are questions worth considering, and the film ends by leaving the answers up to us. The ending may not please everyone, but I found it both authentic and hopeful. But maybe, like Brad, I’m an idealist at heart.

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Brad’s Status opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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