In between playing larger than life characters in films like Zoolander and Dodgeball, Ben Stiller moonlights in independent movies often playing nebbish, over-analytical men in crisis. Like Woody Allen’s onscreen persona but with a harder edge, the actor played the type of role in movies like Flirting with Disaster, The Royal Tenenbaums and his frequent collaborations with Noah Baumbach to great effect. Thus, put him together with writer-director Mike White (creator of HBO’s Enlightened but perhaps more famous for being Jack Black’s roommate in School of Rock), someone well-versed in portraying existential angst comedically, and the result is a winning cocktail of neurosis.
Brad’s Status stars Stiller as the titular character, a middle-aged husband and father who runs a successful NGO. While his life appears perfect, his sleep is distracted by thoughts that he never reached his full potential. Many of whom he went to college with (played with varying degrees of delectable smugness by Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson and Jermaine Clement) are rich and powerful leaving Brad feeling unsatisfied and resentful with what he has. His crisis increases when he learns his son Troy (Austin Abrams) may have a shot of getting into Harvard. On a trip to visit the campus, Brad fluctuates between pride for his son, then jealousy for his boy’s bright future and shame all while his path crosses with those from his past.
How much one enjoys Brad’s Status depends on how much one can tolerate the central character. In many ways Brad is thoroughly irritating. He runs a charity but seems utterly self-obsessed. He is fuelled by envy. At one point, he has a fantasy about Luke Wilson character’s toddler snorting cocaine to make himself feel better about his own family. Yet, the movie manages to walk the thin line between acknowledging that Brad is an infuriating, text-book example of white privilege but also getting the audience to invest in his issues. Although Brad is one of the last in the world who should be complaining about his position in life, it helps that anyone who has been a victim of the green-eyed monster at some part in their life can relate to his envy. Also, the structure of the film relies upon Brad repeatedly being punished for his thoughts, resulting in some light cringe comedy played very well by Stiller.
While much of film is told through voice-over by Brad describing his inner thoughts, White manages to make it cinematic and comedic. He accompanies the dialogue with visuals which at first seem dreamy but realistic yet grow subtly more ridiculous as the film continues (watch out for a funny Jimmy Kimmel cameo), highlighting the divide between Brad’s perception of the world and reality.
Credit should go to White for finding Austin Abrams who manages to dilute Stiller’s anxious energy by countering it with his own laid back chilled vibe. He feels like a real-life teenager, an element which makes the more emotional beats in the final act hit harder. Speaking of the last act, although White doesn’t have much new to say about white privilege or jealousy, he expresses points touched upon in other movies with great eloquence. In a moment of clarity Brad states: “I can love the world without having to possess it”. If one is looking for a message to take away from a film, they could do far worse.