Like the attitude of the subject of its story line, champions of this film are likely to get a bit defensive about Brad’s Status. Superficially it’s easy to dismiss, fluffing it off as another in a long line of middle-aged male movies obsessed with status, oblivious to its overt privilege and providing little more to the furtherance of the cinematic art than more masturbatory fodder for an audience already well served by a century of similar stuff.
Yet what sets Mike White’s film apart is precisely the precision with which he tackles this very paradox - that the most general of stories can still be told with sensitivity - weaving a rich, touching and genuinely profound comedy about coming to terms with self-expectations and the ravages of doubt and jealousy. It’s the film’s palpable relatability that gives it much of its magic, finding the perfect tone with which to tell its tale.
The film relies heavily on the craft of Ben Stiller to keep it from being maudlin, with his uncanny ability to make mopey seem engaging rather than obnoxious or tiresome. He’s been fine of late in a mixed bag of films, many exploring similar themes and helmed by Noah Baumbach, but his take on Brad is the most effective he’s been since the equally conflicted father in the Baumbach/Wes Anderson collaboration Royal Tennenbaums. Rather than being a widower like in that flick, here Stiller plays Brad with a loss far more self-inflicted, a crisis of conscience brought about by both a ticking clock and a coterie of college friends all of whom seem to have reached a level of success that feels to Brad like one that was owed to him.
Wrapped around a father-son journey storyline where they visit prospective colleges, the bonding experience with the musically prodigious Troy (Austin Abrams) provides a perfect moment for self-reflection for Brad, with ample time for ruminations upon his own journey since leaving Tufts and fully entering adulthood. Told through sardonic narration and wonderful jumpcuts to the seeming magical lives of Brad’s former classmates, the film brilliantly intertwines these facets of pathos and bleak humour to reveal deep aspects of this rich character.
The film is at its most overt when Brad meets up with one of his son’s evocative friends (Shazi Raja) for a late night drink, providing some hard life lessons from one jaded by experience. Her response is priceless and profound, the young idealist calling him on his shit so effectively that its cuttingness feels surgical.
The lives of Brad’s successful friends each provides a tableau with which he measures himself, from Jemaine Clement’s frolicking on a beach, Luke Wilson’s jetsetting lifestyle, Mike White’s Gaypalooza to Michael Sheen’s slick Washington style. On a superficial level the cliché about grass being greener elsewhere is at play, yet White’s script deftly navigates the myriad forms of how the success of others shapes not only our prejudices about their happiness but, worst poison of all, keeps us from our own proper sense of self. Again, it sounds like obvious stuff, and in many ways it’s a moral tale borrowed from Greek Tragedies, but with its beautiful tapestry combining angst and amusement, it’s a work well worth celebrating.
Jenna Fischer’s role as mom and wife in the film could equally have descended into mediocrity, yet her charm and fierce intelligence gives the film space enough to allow her to have her own life apart from the narrative, forming a completely believable relationship with the central character. And bravo to Abrams for playing Troy with an inner rage finely honed, utterly believable how he deals with his dad’s own doubts and showcases a maturity that’s the core of the film.
With an Andersonian cast and score by Mark Mothersbaugh the correlations are obvious, yet in the best way the film reflects the kind of intelligent, philosophical comedies that solidified Woody Allen’s genius. While Woody’s films tend towards the comically morose, here White takes a slightly different tack, showing that the ennui need not be armour to wear and that the fires of jealousy can be doused with a little bit of humility and a lot of schadenfreude.
A pure, profound pleasure, Brad’s Status effortlessly presents a story that it would be easy to dismiss yet isn't here. It’s a supremely mature work from White, finding between the laughs deep and profound ideas about how we shape the narrative about ourselves, and finding in Stiller a perfect conduit for the film’s sophisticated shifts in tone.