Director: Mike White
Cast: Ben Stiller, Jenna Fischer, Austin Abrams, Luke Wilson, Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement
Runtime: 1 hr 41 mins
Rating: M18 (Some Mature Content)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 2 November 2017
Synopsis: Brad has a satisfying career and a comfortable life in suburban Sacramento where he lives with his sweet-natured wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and their musical prodigy son, Troy (Austin Abrams), but it’s not quite what he imagined during his college glory days. Showing Troy around Boston, where Brad went to university, he can’t help comparing his life with those of his four best college friends: a Hollywood bigshot (White), a hedge-fund founder (Luke Wilson), a tech entrepreneur (Jemaine Clement), and a political pundit and bestselling author (Michael Sheen). As he imagines their wealthy, glamorous lives, he wonders if cozy middle-class domesticity is the best he will ever achieve. But when circumstances force him to reconnect with his former friends, Brad begins to question whether he has really failed or if, in some essential ways, their lives are more flawed than they appear.
Somewhat-privileged white, middle-class person struggling with a mid-life crisis – sounds like a narrative we’ve all heard before. Iterations range from copious amounts of navel-gazing despair (say, Lost in Translation) to other sprightlier Hollywood treatments that inform us it’s never too late to pursue some kind of screw-the-world, non-conformist epiphany (Eat, Pray, Love comes to mind). Brad’s Status lies somewhere along that continuum and like all films of the genre, tries to get at some kind of revelation about self-discovery and meaningful living. It’s writer-director’s Mike White funny and thoughtful approach, and the journey he takes us towards Brad’s eventual, aptly ambiguous reckoning that ultimately make the experience as refreshing as it is relatable.
Ben Stiller stars as Brad Sloan, the titular, malcontent lead character on the wrong side of fifty. And as the amusing opening scene shows, he may as well be waking up literally on the wrong side of the bed, wondering aloud at night whether he has enough materially, much to his slumbering wife Melanie’s (Jenna Fischer) annoyance. But that’s just the beginning of his incessant whinging. We soon learn Brad works for a non-profit organisation (the irony!) as a social media consultant, and while his spouse’s persona is admittedly vanilla, it’s clear Melanie’s nothing but a patient and loving wife and mother, while their unassuming, talented high school kid Troy (Austin Abrams) is shaping up to be prime Ivy League stock.
Doesn’t seem like there’s much to complain about, except that Brad still does so anyway. Most of the film unfolds on the trip that Brad and Troy take together to the East Coast in order to survey potential colleges for the bright teenager. From the outset, it’s clear that White refuses to set up his protagonist to be an instantly likeable one. Far from it. When Brad isn’t griping about upgrading to first-class seats on a plane (an unwarranted extravagance by his standards), he’s comparing his own social standing to those of his ex-college mates living the high life in fancifully conjured-up sequences in his head, largely fuelled by the feeds of their Instagram posts and Facebook statuses (referenced as a play on words in the movie’s title).
These objects of Brad’s disaffection – in his mind at least – provide the film’s much-needed comic relief. They consist of celebrity director Nick (played by White himself, tongue firmly in cheek), who knows how to throw a mean poolside party and whose house is featured in the latest issue of Architectural Digest; early retiree Billy (Jemaine Clement), who spends his days cavorting with bikini-clad ladies in Hawaii after the sale of his tech start-up; hedge fund mogul Jason (Luke Wilson), who flies his picture-perfect family with him everywhere on a private jet; political expert Craig (Michael Sheen), who, besides dispensing professional advice in books and on TV, lectures at Harvard University. Without giving away too much, Craig’s academic connections pave the way for a pivotal encounter with Brad.
The question is – how much of their lives actually match up to the loftiness that Brad has built up in his imagination though? While White has much of Brad’s self-absorbed cognitive processes narrated with suffocating detail via a recurring voiceover, it becomes gradually apparent that the device serves to accentuate the chasm between reality and his protagonist’s own inflated expectations. We are forced to walk in the uncomfortable shoes of Brad, who borders on being repugnant at times (he vacillates between pride and potential jealousy when it comes to Troy), but who’s to say we haven’t had morally questionable thoughts once in a while? If Brad is flawed, White makes him the lesser of the evils by contrasting him against his four ex-pals by upping their dysfunctionality quotient, slowly revealing the troubles and obnoxiousness behind at least some of these side characters. There’s a certain humane, relatable intimacy that intensifies as Brad wades from the murky waters of self-doubt towards clearer shores of optimism. The others-have-it-worse axiom isn’t ideal, but it works here.
And speaking of contrasts, interestingly it’s often the kids who hold up a mirror to Brad’s neuroses, an eye-wink to White’s own real-life inspiration for the script (the director intended the movie to reassure his own dad, whom he considers a success in real life but who struggled with living up to personal expectations). In one scene, one of Troy’s friends, Ananya (Shazi Raja) an intelligent young woman of colour puts him in his place by calling him out on his white male privilege and first-world problems. In the movie’s closing moments, it’s Troy who delivers what Brad (and perhaps us as audiences with our own real-world comparative anxieties) needs to hear as a voice of reason, but we won’t divulge any further. White effectively juxtaposes the youngsters as a reminder of Brad’s own youthful idealism and groundedness before these were chewed away by society’s expectations and his personal insecurities.
Stiller puts in what is possibly one of the finest performances of his career here. Forget his part in 2013’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – this is the subversive daydreamer role that really teases out the best of his capabilities. His frayed, greying hairs and age-worn countenance lend an authentically beleaguered air to the lead character and, dare we say, poignancy for audiences who have grown up (or grown older) with the likes of Zoolander and Meet the Parents. Often it’s Stiller’s masterful body language that speaks greater volumes than the protagonist’s rambling monologues. On the other hand, Abrams more than holds his own as Brad’s disarmingly calm son, countering his on-screen father’s irrationality with a muted but formidable sensibility on more occasions than one without ever rounding off the edges that come with being an awkward teenager.
A small part of this reviewer wishes White pushed the envelope a little further and made Brad’s Status a little sharper, perhaps even grittier. It’s a film that’s keenly aware of its protagonist’s privilege and egocentrism, yet lets him get away with it ultimately. By and large however, the script is intelligent and well-written. White’s direction, which largely consists of hand-held sequences, is effective and feels unpretentious and personal. Most importantly, Brad’s Status is bitingly #relatable for anyone who’s ever had to take stock of their lives against their peers at a class reunion, or those who’ve ever suffered from fear-of-missing-out impulses generated by the painstakingly curated social media feeds of their contemporaries. Which is basically all of us and reason enough for you to watch it.
(A timely, thoughtful movie that ruminates about measuring status in terms of our relationships with material wealth or with our loved ones, Brad’s Status is a heartfelt, relatable piece of work that will speak to anyone who’s ever struggled with living up to modern society’s definition of success)
Review by Tan Yong Chia Gabriel