“Brad’s Status” feels like a perfect installment in Ben Stiller’s recent “middle-aged white male anxiety” repertoire, but that doesn’t keep it from being an incredibly sharp and affecting film. The “Zoolander” actor’s foray into comedy-dramas, such as 2013’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” or 2014’s “While We’re Young” — films that dealt with themes of career dissatisfaction and aging insecurities — demonstrated his strengths as a subtle comedic actor. It may seem obvious to write off “Brad’s Status” as yet another film in which Stiller plays the privileged everyman, but to do so would be to undermine one of the Hollywood’s smartest comedies in recent times and the platform for one of Stiller’s career-defining performances.
Written and directed by Mike White (the writer behind “School of Rock” and “Beatriz at Dinner”), “Brad’s Status” is a surprisingly insightful film about career envy, social reputation and family ties. It traces a thin line between satire and sincerity, and it is ultimately successful because of its balancing act. Featuring a brilliant script and heartfelt performances, the film is a poignant ode to life’s simplicities disguised as a quirky college-visit dramedy.
“Brad’s Status” follows 47-year-old Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller), a nonprofit founder who, after witnessing the vast financial and social success of his old college friends via social media, becomes increasingly anxious about his own place in life. No amount of reassurance from family friends or from his kind-hearted, idealist wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) appeases his concerns.
Brad’s inferiority complex only escalates when he takes his musically inclined, self-proclaimed hipster son, Troy (Austin Abrams) on a college visit to the East Coast and tries to reconnect with his old friends in a desperate attempt to network on Troy’s behalf — he could get into Harvard, but he just needs connections! Eventually, the trip becomes less about Troy than about Brad’s obsession with his own past and his apparent lack of accomplishments — an obsession that plagues Brad in all of his interactions on the trip and in his relationship with his son.
White’s script involves a particularly keen blend of comedy and drama, effectively maintaining a somber atmosphere while occasionally branching out into absurdity. Told entirely through Brad’s perspective, the film conveys his crisis through lengthy internal monologues while he interacts with those around him, such as his pretentious political pundit of an ex-friend, Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), or the beautiful young Harvard violinist, Ananya (Shazi Raja).
We see Brad’s life from an “objective” perspective through his interactions, and from his personal point of view, which is often defined by his extensive narration and his fantasies. These often range from positive (Troy becoming a successful musician) to paranoid (Troy telling the world about his embarrassment of a father).
It’s this constant dual state of external and internal narratives that makes “Brad’s Status” such a compelling watch. It employs a format reminiscent of the matter-of-fact monologue so common in classic Woody Allen films like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” — utilizing a dark and sarcastic comedic tone to convey a personal philosophy.
Of course, the script wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it didn’t rely on the complexity of its central performance. Stiller demonstrates an incredible level of depth and sincerity as Brad, and we witness the extremities of his performance — his bitter, sardonic behavior towards his peers, as well as his emotional acceptance of the value and beauty in life’s art. Brad’s cynicism is a sharp contrast to the confident optimism displayed by Melanie, or the aloofness displayed by Troy. Stiller, Fischer and Abrams all bring a distinct — but inherently human — quality to the table, adding to the film’s creatively balanced structure.
What “Brad’s Status” lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in insight and craft. Serving as a subtle and smart character study, it offers plenty of laughs, plenty of tears and plenty to think about on your way out of the theater.
Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at [email protected].