It’s one of life’s complicated, dirty little secrets: It’s in our nature to be jealous of our friends’ achievements. Of course, you’re overwhelmingly happy for your friend. However, when they upgrade their lifestyle, it’s only natural to wonder how you too can make your hopes and dreams materialize. You’ll reflect on what you could’ve done – or what you should be doing – better, but ultimately (minutes later) come to realize that you are in fact doing pretty okay yourself. That’s the lesson learned by the titular character in writer-director Mike White’s BRAD’S STATUS. A trite, predictable hero’s journey is made infinitely more interesting, disarming and meaningful thanks to the performances by its two leads. That said, will those who truly need to be impacted by this show up?
Brad (Ben Stiller) lives a comfortable life with his sweet, supportive wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and seventeen-year-old son Troy (Austin Abrams) – and yet somehow he’s incredibly uncomfortable with how his life has turned out. Instead of looking at his own triumphs of what qualifies as success by society’s standards (having achieved the American Dream of owning a home, having a healthy family and dependable job), Brad’s razor sharp focus is misdirected on what his friends from college have done with theirs. Craig (Michael Sheen) is a famous author, having written a book about his time working at the White House. Billy (Jemaine Clement) sold his tech company at 40 and retired to Hawaii. Jason (Luke Wilson) is a hedge fund manager with a private jet and equally driven wife. And Nick (Mike White) is a big-time Hollywood director. Over the course of a weekend away, looking at colleges to benefit Troy’s future, Brad reflects upon his past and lets his inferiority complex set the course.
If this sounds like white male privilege, then you’d be right – and Brad gets called out on it too! Actually, “on paper” Brad’s arc sounds like it plays out worse than it actually does on screen. There’s depth and dimension thanks to Stiller’s ability to keep Brad’s humanity and earnestness at the forefront – far more fluidly than in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. Abrams brings a vulnerability and sweet soulfulness to his role as Troy, providing an anchor for Brad in his escalating tailspin, as kids sometimes do when roles reverse in parent-child relationships. White manages to keep the character fairly even-keel too, if not universally relatable on some level. He’s finally learned how to sufficiently balance tone a lot more effortlessly than in his previous features. Brad’s not an asshole. He’s just in need of a perspective shift. Up to the point where Troy’s wide-eyed Harvard pal Ananya (Shazi Raja, who does substantial work with her supporting role) brings this to his attention, you’ve grown to care about him and believe that his character wouldn’t be aware of this.
Brad’s not completely unhappy with the trajectory of his life. It’s just he’s given more credence to a nagging feeling that winds up snowballing in his mind. That’s a normal feeling, but he should already know this “grass is always greener” lesson. While it’s not a message that finger-waves, it’s a pedestrian one nonetheless and subsequently plays out in predictable ways. His friends don’t actually live better than him! They’re not happy in their lives! They have real problems too!
Despite including a search for lost youthful optimism – something that will resonate with anyone over thirty-five – BRAD’S STATUS is rendered a tad rote. Essentially it serves as a reminder of something that an enlightened audience already knows. But for those who haven’t embraced it yet, this may be more of a meaningful revelation.
BRAD’S STATUS opens on September 15.