Mike White has built a career around inspecting individuals in stasis. For so many of his characters—from The Good Girl’s Justine Last to Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe—life is at a standstill. They reflect on the past, present, and future, not knowing what lies ahead, and being as simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about the opportunities they have coming or missed out on “gained or lost?”. Brad’s Status wallows in this stasis, to the point where it creates one of White’s most frustrating characters to date.
Brad (Ben Stiller) is a 47 year-old father of one. He’s dealing with a minor mid-life crisis, questioning whether the life he’s built around his non-profit work, his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and his son Troy (Austin Abrams), is actually any good. As his inner monologue—a staple of White’s work—reveals, his insecurities stem from constant comparison to his more successful friends (Luke Wilson, Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, and White himself).
The viewer follows Brad and his son on their journey to check out colleges, primarily Harvard and Tufts, the latter of which being where Brad himself went. If this all sounds like the film is primarily interested in the titular character above anyone else, it’s because it is. We spend every minute of the film attached to Brad in a way that could understandably be seen as aggravating. His perspective is that of a middle-aged white man, privileged enough where his worst fears are dhat he isn’t as successful as the people he once knew.
If White asked us to exist in this realm without criticism, that would be criminal. But the filmmaker, who misleads us into thinking just that for a fair portion of the film, doesn’t let Brad off easy. “You’re 50 years old and you still think that the world was made for you,” one of his son’s friends bluntly tells him. Brad’s Status is as critical of its protagonist as it is empathetic. “You have enough,” she adds. But he keeps asking: do I?
Stiller’s melancholic performance and voice-over work does a lot of the work for White’s script, which some might misread as being as self-indulgent as the protagonist himself. He’s flawed, but his issues are easy to understand and relate to, as are those of his son. Complementing Stiller perfectly, Abrams delivers one of the most tolerable teen performances in recent years. As insular as the film is, it’s compelling in how sympathetic a portrait it paints of these two individuals navigating a world full of insecurity and vulnerability.
Outside of the narration, there’s plenty of White hallmarks at play here. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score—which, as with Beatriz at Dinner, both emulates and repurposes pieces from Enlightened—is ever present, further punctuating each of Brad’s fantasies of what life is like for his friends (or could be like for himself). These sequences highlighting the supporting cast of men contain some of the most amusing moments—particularly some jokes that reveal how old-school the seemingly progressive Brad really is—and nicely contrast the real world. As much a relic of the past as he might be, Brad is refreshing in that his mid-life crisis doesn’t include the typical affair or haphazard luxury spending.
Brad’s Status forces its audience to question, as much as its protagonist does, whether or not what they have is enough. Some viewers may walk away thinking, “Yes. How boring it must be to worry about settling for a comfortable living.” Other viewers may see this and find themselves in Brad, as frustrating as that might be, awaiting the day they too begin to question whether or not they’ve made any difference in the world. Mike White doesn’t care to answer that question for you. And though it may not seem quite so optimistic, Brad’s Status encourages not comparing yourself to others and living in the moment, whether that consists of enjoying a tickle fight with your son or openly weeping at a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s “Humoresque.”
Directed by Mike White; written by Mike White; starring Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement & Mike White; 101 minutes.
Brad’s Status is now playing everywhere.