- Brad's Status (2018)
Mike White, the scriptwriter behind hard-hitting Beatriz at Dinner as well as The School of Rock and Nacho Libre has done a lot to prove his ability to write about anything he wants. With Brad’s Status, which he’s written and directed, he connects the thoughtful responses to human behaviour and subtle humour – the result is ultimately endearing, but also overwhelmingly fluffy.
Struggling with the monotony, Brad questions his past choices that led him to where he is in life: he’s a founder of a fundraising organisation, living with a loving wife and high-achieving son. That doesn’t fulfil him: seeing his university friends’ book deals, TV appearances, or even Instagram pictures makes him tick, pushing him into thoughts about his own respectability, possibilities, financial stability and power. When it’s time for his offspring to leave for university, he travels to Boston with him to attend a couple of interviews. When he hears that Troy might be able to get into Harvard, he immediately projects his own ambitions onto him and becomes jealous of his prospects in seconds, but dedicates himself to supporting him. Bottling it all up creates a Molotov cocktail of emotions. “Are you having a nervous breakdown?” his son asks, and he promptly negates it, but the denial and regret speak through his everyday interactions with a force he tries to manage.
A lot of the film’s charm has to do with Ben Stiller’s performance. After his last year’s performance in The Meyerowitz Stories that solidified his status as a king of well-written indie comedy characters (think While We’re Young, Greenberg, and more), he returns with a whole lot of sensitivity and humour. Brad is torn by doubts and obsessed with raising his status, his life is stagnant and he’s constantly fretting about others’ opinion. Mentally reliving millions of life scenarios, he beats himself up for not getting recognition and admiration, taking it out on his wife and son, too. Depicting all these traits, the actor finds a fantastic balance between downplaying the middle life crisis for laughs and externalising his feelings.
It’s difficult not to think about his bitter cynicism and disillusionment; how many times do young people hear that they should drop their ideals and make money because only then they’ll be able to make a real impact? There’s a know-it-all Brad for everything that happens to a person in their early twenties, and you likely know one.
In the world that puts so much effort into criticising millennials so often, Brad’s Status is an intelligent reflection on how the generations actually don’t differ that much. They’re bruised by the current of their lifetime, unfulfilled ambitions and skewed life lessons, the film seems to remind us. And the diagnosis of an unfiltered sense of inadequacy the protagonist expresses, delivered by one of the characters, also hits home: the world we’re living in brought some structural changes, and because the time moves so fast, there are people who struggle to adapt. These are theories sociologists could write theses about, but White weaves the right bits into the story, even if messily.
Regardless of the leading man’s interpretation, the director’s decision to use voiceover all along is perplexing: it doesn’t do Stiller much service, and slowly drives you mad. At the beginning, it does make you think about Paterson and how the film utilised it for an existential commentary; you hope it’d turn out to be the same, but soon the effect wears off and we’re left with plains of humourlessness and negativity that are difficult to stomach. More “show, don’t tell” would also help us to read between the lines rather than stay in Brad’s head – although it highlights his narcissism as it is, it throws everyone else’s standpoint off balance.
What about Brad’s Circle and their portrayal in the movie? Michael Sheen gives us a solid performance as Craig, the only friend that decides to show up and talk to Brad. His short appearance reveals tons about his character’s personality, even if we hear about him briefly beforehand. Never standing against the things we know about him, he’s the hard-hitting contribution to the moral of this story, and a sheer proof that the dinner sequence would be devastating if it included all of the friends, otherwise showcased in brilliant cameos from Jemaine Clement and Luke Wilson.
Fresh talent undoubtedly steals the show in the film. Austin Abrams isn’t a novice – he scored a handful of smaller roles beforehand, but this supporting role sets him on a right path to move forward in the film world. As Troy, he manages to capture the essence of a calm, talented teenager, creating his character without any unnecessary nonchalance, but instead with warmth and thoughtfulness. A newcomer Shazi Raja is pleasing as Ananya, too, even if her character seems to be severely underwritten. She’s a youthful idealist, depicted by the actress with necessary power and confidence. She serves Brad some brash truths – “you’re an epitome of privilege by thinking that the world’s been made to serve you, and yet you remain so self-centred” – deployed with a sparkle in her eye and a lot of enthusiasm. However, we don’t get enough time to truly feel that she’s a power heroine to change the world one day, and that’s largely the unutilised bit in the story. It’s implied, but as Brad’s doubts take place, we see her as the therapist of her dad’s friend more than anything else.
Sometimes we wish it was a little more nuanced when it comes to the characters Brad keeps on being jealous about. Although he creates a vivid imaginary world and places his old friends in it, the final reveal loses a bit of its impact because of lack of explanation or visual portrayal of his mates. White spends so much time planting certain preconceptions in our minds that the final revelations don’t deliver enough information to change what we think of them, or place Brad in the context. He might be on his way to understanding what success is about, but we’re still puzzled about his own behaviour even in the light of the new evidence; the story doesn’t help us find anything that we wouldn’t know in this “grass is always greener on the other side” tale. And let’s be honest, do grown people actually whine about each other that much if everyone is primarily concerned with themselves?
Ultimately, Brad’s Status searches for depth, criticising the destructive life outlooks without falling into the Pollyanna principle, but it also struggles to be convincing on a story level. It’s somewhat endearing and boasts a handful of great performances, but it’s lacking something that’d differentiate it from the movies of the same calibre and make it echo in your mind after you leave the cinema.
Brad’s Status opens in the UK on the 5th of January 2017.