I’ll start with this: Brad’s Status is the best film Mike White has either written or directed.
I’ll also assert this: Brad’s Status features Ben Stiller’s best performance.
Having said both of those things, I have no idea how to even begin to describe the reaction I had sitting in the theater watching what feels more like an emotional exorcism than a film. From time to time, you’ll run into a film that just levels you, and all of the normal critical comments or observations you’d make go out the window. Charlie Kaufman’s always been particularly adept at that where I’m concerned, and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was devastating, arriving at a moment where I felt unstuck in time. When I sat down to Brad’s Status, I didn’t have any expectations. I hadn’t seen a trailer. It just played, and it punched a hole in me, and when it was over, I had to slip out and avoid looking anyone in the eye for fear that I would get knocked flat all over again.
There are certain rules that you’ll hear people assert about storytelling on film, and one of those rules is that you should not rely heavily on voice-over, and when you want to show an example of how to shatter that rule completely, Brad’s Status would be a great one. Stiller’s got a running inner monologue that never stops, and that’s the point. The title makes it pretty clear. Brad Sloan (Stiller) is a guy who can’t stop taking the measure of the world around him, and whenever he does, he feels like he comes up short. That constant process, that attempt at equilibrium, is the point of the film.
One of the ways I try to center myself when I am anxious or overwhelmed or filled with doubt about my work or my choices is by listing all the good things in my life. That is not to say that my anxieties or my doubts are untrue or unimportant. But perspective is the thing that ultimately rights me when I feel like I’m about to capsize completely. The thing that Brad is haunted by, more than anything, is status. Right now, our society has found a new and toxic way to make status something we address directly thanks to Facebook and social media. People actively think about their status and it’s become a form of performance art. That surface is rarely the truth, though, because the truth about any of us is so much more complicated. You can look at someone’s marriage, for example, from the outside and think one thing about it, but it may look very different behind closed doors. And even then, the two people in that marriage are only seeing as much of their partner as each person is willing to share. The absolute truth about who we are is something that is internal and personal and hard to capture in art.
Brad’s son Troy (Austin Abrams) is getting ready to go to college, and Brad has planned a trip for them to look at the colleges that Troy wants to attend. In the process, he reaches out to an old friend from college, Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), to ask him for some help at one of the schools. In doing so, he has to deal with his feelings about the success of his friends and where he is in his own career and life. That’s it. That’s the whole film. But because of White’s script and Stiller’s performance, it’s lacerating and raw and awkward and ugly and hilarious. Brad imagines the lives of his college friends, and they are perfect and happy and fulfilling and thrilling. Billy Wearslter (Jemaine Clement) got rich and retired early with what appears to be a harem, Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson) became a high-powered money broker who works on a level Brad can’t even imagine, and Nick Pascale (Mike White) went to Hollywood, conquered it, then came out as super-gay in a non-stop orgy of wealth and decadence. Oh, and of course, there’s Craig, the one who Brad has to ask for help. Michael Sheen plays him perfectly, this unctuous little professional talking head with his books and his political influence and his ability to walk into any restaurant and get the best table. Coming face to face with Craig and actually seeing that success close up is almost too much for Brad. It’s not like there’s some giant crisis point thing that happens between them. It’s just that all of this self-hatred is constantly churning in Brad, and having to actually deal with it in a tangible, quantifiable way seems to push Brad to some sort of personal breaking point.
A big part of what’s pushing Brad has to do with Troy and the choices he’s about to make. When Brad realizes that Troy has a chance at getting into Harvard, and that he really wants to go there, he suddenly begins to view Troy as a form of redemption for himself. His son can have the things he never had. His son can be the things he never was. He can let go of his own ambitions and frustrations and instead focus on giving his son a head start. I’d suspect many of us see our children as our way of taking a second swing at things, and it’s certainly not uncommon to see people push their children to excel for reasons that are less than noble. Watching how Brad throws himself into the idea, and then watching the ways his own insecurities pull that idea out of shape, distorting it into something that’s about him, is a painful illustration of how we can be our own worst enemies, and while there are Ben Stiller movies where all of this would lead to broad comedy between the father and the son, that’s not what this is about. Austin Abrams is just as good as Stiller is in the film, and watching him as he processes just how frail and human his father can be is shattering.
My oldest is 12 years old right now, and I think we’re at the tail end of the years where he thinks I am the coolest person alive. I’m trying to enjoy every day of it, because the truth is going to land on both of us like a ton of bricks, and much sooner than I want. I am positively awash in stress about how I’m going to pay for college for him, and it’s only six years away, with his brother rolling in three years later. I want to tell him that he can be anything he wants to be, but the reality of it is that his opportunities will be largely defined by choices I’m making now or that I’ve already made, and I’m sure in a thousand little ways, I have already dropped the ball and screwed things up. All I can do is try to do better by them with each new day, and watching Stiller struggle with all of these things in this film was genuinely painful for me. I’m filled with regrets about choices I’ve made in my work, and I’m not happy about how I’ve ended up where I am, and the decision I face each day is how to handle those feelings. I can let them eat me up like Brad Sloan does, constantly failing every time I compare myself to everyone else and where they are and what they have, or I can realize that I have love in my life and I do work that satisfies me and I am raising children who make me proud. My failures are as real as my successes, and my status is as precarious as anyone else’s, and those contradictions are as much drama as my life can handle. Capturing that inner turmoil is normally a task better suited to prose, which is another reason I’m so impressed by White’s film.
White is a talented writer whose career has been marked by the contrast between his smaller personal independent films and the big-budget movies that allow him the freedom to pursue those smaller visions. Chuck and Buck and School of Rock seem like equally honest representations of who White is as a writer, even though they’re wildly different in tone and content. Before now, I would have said Enlightened represented the best distillation of his voice, but Brad’s Status feels to me like a movie that only one person would have made, and for him to have made something that feels so personal but that speaks to such universal drives is impressive. All of White’s work seems to have driven home the underlying point that we are all imperfect and that we are all looking for the same things… happiness, love, security, a sense that we belong. There is a maturity to the way he approaches these ideas in Brad’s Status that marks it as a major work.
Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is one of his best, and Xavier Grobet’s photography is loose and vibrant, a fitting match for all of Brad’s anxious energy. The entire cast is working at the same high level as Stiller, and Jenna Fischer is good as Melanie, Brad’s patient and loving wife. Special attention should be paid to Shazi Raja, who plays a young woman who crosses paths with Brad and Troy, leading to a long sequence in which Brad learns some of the hardest truths of the night. She is what everyone fears as they get older: youth so strong and pure that it will wash us away as well as everything we’ve ever done. As much as White allows us to feel empathy for Brad and all of the fears and sorrows that drive him, he also allows us the room to see how ridiculous he’s being about his place in the world. It is a wise film precisely because it allows us to understand Brad without demanding that we see him as unfailingly right.
Maybe you’re perfectly content with you are, with all the choices you’ve made, and with everything you have in life. If so, then I envy you. For the rest of us, Brad’s Status is a pretty remarkable thing, knowing and wise and unsparingly honest. It is a small film in many ways, but emotional impact is certainly not one of them.
Running time: 101 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic