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BRAD’S STATUS (2017) review

September 25, 2017

 

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written by: Mike White
produced by: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, David Bernad and Sidney Kimmel
directed by: Mike White
rated: R (for language)
runtime: 101 min.
U.S. release date: September 15, 2017 (NY/LA) & September 22, 2017

 

I was reminded of it seven years ago, when I was asked to speak at my twenty-year high school reunion. By speak, I mean standing in front of a room full of peers who have become doctors, lawyers, musicians and teachers. By “it” I mean that feeling you inevitably get when you look at where you’re at in life compared to everyone else from high school (or college, for that matter) and those feelings of intimidation and insecurity start to weigh you down – or maybe that’s just me. It’s in our nature to compare ourselves to others, from family members to colleagues, but what I was soon reminded of was that we’re all the same, regardless of what our proposed status is. It’s taking Brad a lot longer to realize that. 

Forty-Something Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) lives comfortably in Sacramento, California with his wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and college-bound son, Troy (Austin Abrams “Paper Towns” and “The Kings of Summer”), yet he’s wrestling with insecurity and doubt about life choices and his position in life, his status.  He heads a struggling non-profit that matches foundations with deserving beneficiaries and she has a seemingly satisfying job within the California State government. Their seventeen year-old son is a somewhat shy kid who’s earned great grades and is something of a music prodigy. To anybody other than Brad, his life seems just fine. He and his wife are happily married, both have jobs and they’ve raised a good kid – yet there’s a “but” in his life. It gnaws at him and lingers.

Brad lays awake at night wondering how much money will come to them once Melanie’s well-off parents are dead.  He even wakes up Melanie (who seems perfectly content in life) and asks her such a question.  Yikes.  It’s one thing to think something like that, but asking it out loud? Clearly, something is eating at Brad, but why and where does this stem from?

 

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Maybe this upcoming Boston college scouting tour he’s about to embark on with his son, will reveal what’s going on with him. It’s natural and understandable to have these thoughts mid-life, which finds Brad thinking about money and the future with more frequency than before.

Due to a work convention, Melanie won’t be able to attend, so the trip becomes a potential bonding time for father-and-son with the two hitting up Brad’s alma mater, Tufts University, as well as a prestigious school like Harvard. It can be a bittersweet time for any parent, seeing their child looking at adulthood and watching university deans size them up, but Brad’s mostly preoccupied with himself.

Before and during the trip, Brad can’t help but to think of where his three college friends are at now compared to where he’s at. Nick (Mike White) is a successful movie director in Hollywood, Jason (Luke Wilson) went on to become a wealthy hedge fund CEO, Billy (Jemaine Clement) has already retired to Hawaii living with two hot young girlfriends and Craig (Michael Sheen) is a popular best-selling author and TV pundit. Not only does he consider their lives as successful compared to his own, but he also feels left out. He wasn’t invited to Nick’s recent wedding, which he learns everyone else went to but him. All of this is reeling in his head as Brad accompanies Troy around, often embarrassing his son with his insecurity and neurosis, not to mention offering unsolicited bad advice. When Brad requires assistance from Craig with his Harvard connections, in order to land an interview at the school, he winds up reaching out to a man he hasn’t spoken with in over a decade, which finds Brad trying to remained collected while becoming unnerved and insecure in the presence of his old friend’s success.

As I watched this, I vacillated from finding Brad’s neurosis annoying and at times finding him a bit too relatable. I definitely can relate to feeling excluded and comparing what is happening in my life to the success of others, especially my peers. I’m not losing sleep over any of it though. I may not have liked that I saw some of myself in Brad, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t like “Brad’s Status”. I mostly did, but I wish there was more of what I really liked about the movie in the movie. For example, the moments in “Brad’s Status” where we begin to see Brad realize how his perception of his friend’s success has clouded the reality of their lives. Brad has a revealing moment when he finally catches up with Jason on the phone and he realizes right there that his friend’s life isn’t free of hardships. It may seem like a “Duh” moment for viewers, but we’ve all looked at someone else and wonder why they seem to have all the success, while we experience hardships and seemingly more challenges than they have.

 

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While they’re too infrequent, these eye-opening exchanges Brad has are the movie’s best moments, better than some of the forced humor on display and definitely better than the screeching violins that slide their way up into my head to produce a headache. Two of the best interchanges are in two different restaurants with two different people. One is a late night discussion he has with the young and attractive Ananya (an engaging Shazi Raja) a Harvard student friend of his son’s, who pulls Brad in with her enthusiastic idealism. However, the more she hears of Brad’s whining, the more she shoots him straight and reminds him that he’s doing just fine, which is something he wasn’t expecting or prepared to hear. Then there’s the discussion Brad has with Craig over a casual dinner, in which both parties go from being comfortable to being quite blunt and vulnerable. Stiller and Sheen are great during this dinner and reminds me how we can tend to form a perception of someone based on what little we know of them and how unfair that is both parties. It’s also a reminder that only when we sit down with someone and have a conversation, can we determine whether or not that person is a true friend.

These moments almost make up for what I didn’t like about how writer/director portrays Brad. He’s a borderline jerk, the kind of neurotic role Stiller has had before (the kind Woody Allen has mastered for decades) and it’s really hard to get on board with what he’s concerned about the more we hang out with him. Brad basically makes a scene at the airport, when he tries to get himself and Troy out of coach and into first class (never mind the fact that it’s way too expensive).  Ultimately, Brad is doing it for himself, since Troy couldn’t care less. It’s clear that this is just another way to let us know how obsessed Brad is about wanting to have what the other guy has, but it also brings to mind that whining consumer that’s holding up the line you’re in. Why can’t he just be a content guy who gradually becomes unraveled by crippling insecurity and feelings of exclusion, instead of making a scene of himself?

Although Stiller has played variations of the neurotic lead before, he’s specific and careful here in his restraint. There’s a lot more going on internally with Brad than we’re used to seeing Stiller convey. The more time we spend with Brad, the more uncomfortable it is to watch him – he blows up or sulks at just about everything – and it becomes clear the guy is in need of some intervention. Despite all that, White and Stiller keep the movie as a whole quite approachable, especially for viewers who’ve scrolled through their social media feed and wind up wondering if certain “friends” every take a break from promoting or celebrating themselves.

Don’t expect a laugh riot going into “Brad’s Status”. In fact, much of what everyone else found funny, didn’t do it for me. This isn’t “a Ben Stiller comedy”, which is something I’m grateful for since I’ve never cared for his “Zoolander” work. I prefer “Reality Bytes” or “Permanent Midnight” Ben Stiller, I guess, which is why I appreciated when the comedy was tones down here. Stiller actually makes an interesting pairing with White (known for writing “School of Rock” and “The Good Girl” as well as this year’s “Beatriz at Dinner”), who both seem to be after something more idiosyncratic, more compulsive, ultimately delivering something much more authentic than one would expect given the synopsis.

The easy way to write this movie off is to dismiss it as a tale of “white privilege”. That seems to be the read on this movie (even before seeing it, for some), but it’s such a one-dimensional assessment. As if anyone who’s not white (or male) doesn’t question where they’re at in life, or lay awake at night and think about their own (career, money, relationship, etc) status, let alone compare themselves to others. “Brad’s Status” knows that looking at “the other guy” is natural for any human regardless of who they are, what they look like or where they’re from.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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