Writer-director Mike White toys with generational reflection and guilt
Photo: Ben Stiller plays Brad in new ‘dramedy’ with Jenna Fischer and Austin Abrams
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
In all honesty, during my Toronto International Film Festival screening of “Brad’s Status,” the new dramedy from actor (“School of Rock”), writer (“Chuck & Buck”), and director (“Year of the Dog”) Mike White, I found myself barely able to contain the rage I felt for Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller), an insufferable mess of white male entitlement and privilege. Intellectually, I completely understood that this was exactly how White wanted audiences to respond to Sloan, and Stiller drills down so deeply into the character that it seems as if he has discovered a new fracking technique and tapped an unfathomable reservoir of crude navel-gazing reserves, but I was still sickened by process.
Brad lives an envious life. He is married to a lovely and successful woman (Jenna Fischer), has a son Troy (Austin Abrams) who is a talented young musician and capable student with options for college that epitomize the idea of “bright future,” and runs a small non-profit dedicated to matching wealthy donors with other non-profits in need of financial support to achieve their missions. Of course, Brad can’t get out of his own head long enough to appreciate the good life that he’s got. He constantly questions his choices and compares himself to a quartet of college friends (White, Luke Wilson, Jermaine Clement, and Michael Sheen) who somehow catapulted to fame and fortune far beyond him. Brad wonders how this happened, since he always imagined himself to be the leader of this pack back in the day.
A reckoning lies on the horizon for Brad when he embarks on an East Coast college tour with Troy that finds him cluelessly discovering that Troy has a real shot at getting into an Ivy League school (Harvard) as well as possibly attending Brad’s far more modest liberal arts alma mater. Jealousy and resentment bubble up in Brad, along with fleeting guilt over said emotions (in relation to Troy), but the real unfettered expressions of his impotence arise as he faces off against his college buddies in the closed off arena of his mind.
The entire film seems to unfold as one never-ending interior monologue, with Brad ranting and kvetching to himself about how his friends have ostracized him from their success-driven circle, how he could have been a “contenduh” in his own right (living the life of the rich, famous, and sexually satisfied), or how Troy’s potential glory says more about him than his son’s own efforts. As a 40 something year old African American man with a wife and two daughters, I wanted to knock this obnoxious character out with one perfect punch – like the action hero I am in my mind – and quiet his endless stream of nonsense.
Only a liberal white man could imagine himself to be so injured by this many perceived slights when life has offered him nothing but promise richly fulfilled. It barely helps that White provides an antidote of sorts, to Brad, in form of a pair of encounters that aim to pop his myopic bubble.
Ananya (Shazi Raja) is a student-musician, a few years older than Troy, who sees and appreciates the good thing that Brad has going, and seeks advise from him, only to discover his cynical and rotting core. She patiently listens to his self-doubting diatribe and calls bullshit, but he’s so far into his own rabbit hole of neuroses that he can’t quite hear the pearls of wisdom she’s gifting to him.
It is only later, when Brad settles down to dinner with Craig Fisher (Sheen), his arch-nemesis from his college group that any sort of revelation starts to crack his thick shell. Up to this point, we’ve been privy to his obviously imperfect take on the lives of his cohorts, but Fisher hips him to the less than savory truths of the behind the scenes realities of each of these men. What’s fascinating is how Brad, on some level, continues to miss the point about how wrong he’s been about his own life. White’s film hinges on the notion that Brad is a selfish asshole who needs to encounter an even bigger asshole before he can gain a sense of perspective.
Fortunately, “Brad’s Status” has the calming presence of Abrams as Troy to remind us that the real lessons of life and love shouldn’t have to wait for understanding and acceptance. And these vital privileges are not restricted to an ungrateful few.