Ben Stiller is in comfortable territory in this comedy-drama about middle-aged malaise.
November 09, 2017
Ben Stiller is having a very good year. The actor has only made two movies, and neither have really proven to be a stretch for him, but when it comes to middle-aged malaise in soul-searching comedy-dramas, he well and truly knows what he's doing. The furrowed brow, the frustrated gaze, the constant passive-aggression streaming towards everyone his characters interact with: if you've seen Greenberg, While You're Young or this year's The Meyerowitz Stories, then you definitely know the type. And while Brad's Status mightn't reach quite the same heights as any of those titles, it still demonstrates Stiller doing what he does best.
Playing the eponymous Brad, Stiller gets ample chances to show off his world-weary on-screen persona. Running his own non-profit organisation, married to the laid-back Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and about to see his son Troy (Austin Abrams) off to college, Brad still finds himself unhappy with his lot in life — purely because he hasn't done as well as his former friends. Nick (the film's writer-director Mike White) is a Hollywood hotshot, tech wiz Billy (Jemaine Clement) has retired to Hawaii with stacks of cash, and Jason (Luke Wilson) has a high-powered hedge fund job, a wealthy wife and a growing family. Meanwhile, the last time Brad saw author and TV political commentator Craig (Michael Sheen), he asked for a favour and didn't hear back.
White's script, his third this year after The Emoji Movie and Beatriz at Dinner, uses a trip to Boston to stoke Brad's anxieties about his status. It's not really a surprising development; he's touring college campuses with Troy, and thinking about who he was when he was a student, who he is now, and the difference between his youthful dreams and his current reality. Just as Stiller isn't flirting with anything particularly fresh, but still knocks his performance out of the park, White does much same behind the camera. Having previously directed Year of the Dog and TV's Enlightened, the filmmaker is no stranger to pondering how people see their place in the world — and their reactions when they contemplate making a change.
Here, of course, White has rich material to mine, especially in today's social media-obsessed world. Brad's Status shows Brad scrolling through his old pals' Facebook and Instagram feeds and fantasising about the glamorous lives he's sure they're living. Sound familiar? Far from simply serving up a Generation X riff on Ingrid Goes West, however, White also unpacks Brad's sense of entitlement as a perfectly comfortable white guy living in Sacramento (#firstworldproblems). On top of that, he probes the envy that can spring when a parent thinks their child might grow to eclipse them.
It's an ostensibly straightforward, emotionally dense scenario, albeit one that overplays Brad's inner monologue a tad. There's an interesting balancing act at work here, one that Brad's Status aces more than it might initially appear. While the film's warm visuals might seem to clash with its pointed score, they encapsulate a movie that's both affectionate towards its flawed protagonist and painfully aware of his many faults. That, if nothing else, is something you don't see every day.