Review: Ben Stiller has a midlife crisis in ‘Brad’s Status’

Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) is a man whose public facade has cracked. With each passing day, he is finding it harder and harder to keep up his everyday friendly exterior. He’s bursting at the seams with an inexplicable need to be real, to put into words the politically incorrect feelings we bury deep inside us: resentment of friends; competitiveness for no good reason; the absence of joy for others’ successes; the lack of gratitude for all the world has given him. On paper, he seems thoroughly unlikable. But on screen, Brad is an amalgamation of those of us who can’t help but wish we had more. No matter how glaring and unsavory his entitlement is, you may just find that dark part of yourself creeping through; you may start empathizing with someone you really don’t want to empathize with.

And that is all thanks to the combined genius of writer-director Mike White and Ben Stiller.

Brad’s Status doesn’t have much plot to speak of. Its storyline is more an inciting incident that leads to a feature-length exploration of one man trying to come to terms with his place in the world. The film is set into motion as Brad prepares to go to Boston to tour a few colleges with his son Troy (Austin Abrams). Brad runs a nonprofit and lives with his wife Melanie (a criminally underused Jenna Fischer) and son in a modest home in Sacramento (“a secondary market,” he notes with barely concealed contempt). They’re distinctly middle-class — certainly comfortable enough, but not the kind of family that ever splurges on first-class flights. And maybe Brad would be okay with that, were it not for the fact that he’s constantly inundated with pictures on social media of his wealthy and powerful friends that he went to college with: Jason (Luke Wilson) has a private jet, Billy (Jemaine Clement) is retired and living the good life in Hawaii, and Craig (Michael Sheen) is a famous political pundit and author. Brad can’t help but compare himself to his former group of friends: is he a failure by comparison? And if Troy gets into Harvard, as it looks like he might, will his son come to think of him as inferior as well?

As Brad, Stiller gives one of the best performances of his long career. This is probably the most unlikable he’s ever been, but that sour persona gives way to one of his most vulnerable turns on screen. Don’t be fooled by the upbeat music in the film’s trailer: Brad’s Status is far more of an introspective drama than a comedy. Featuring a constant slew of stream of consciousness voice-over narration from Stiller, White’s screenplay is equal parts First World Problems satire and sincere exploration into the true definition of success. Stiller is the perfect vessel to relay White’s long-winded dialogue. His delivery makes us uncomfortably laugh even as we have the urge to physically distance ourselves from the material before us.

“I felt a deep grief for all the women I would never love and all the lives I would never live,” Brad narrates at one point as he listens rapturously to Ananya (Shazi Raja) — a beautiful, smart Harvard student his son is friends with — as she discusses her college thesis. She speaks with so much passion, so much hope for the future, that we can understand the grief he speaks of. With age comes cynicism; Brad has the incessant need to slap everyone he speaks to with a harsh reality check. When you’re in college you want to save the world. Brad was driven to start his nonprofit because of a college professor-turned-mentor who inspired him while he was a student at Tufts. But lately, he only has one piece of advice: Don’t dedicate your life to working for a charity. Make a ton of money, and then donate it to a charity later. When he tells Ananya this, he instantly loses her admiration and respect. Watching him try to yank back the respect he had mere moments ago makes for one of the cringiest moments in film this year.

There will be many people out there that just can’t tolerate this film. They’ll find listening to someone whine about not having their own private jet endlessly frustrating, grating and just plain icky. Part of me wishes I was one of those people, that I didn’t already understand Brad so well. But even those repulsed by Brad’s Status can’t deny that there’s something incredibly bold about making a self-aware film that dares to empathize with “White Privilege, Male Privilege and First-Class Problems.” It’s a move that reaffirms White as a filmmaker who is not afraid to turn a mirror on himself and society and to bask in the nasty, self-obsessed nature of (some of) mankind in 2017. And I love him dearly for it.

Rating: A-

Brad’s Status is now playing in Miami theaters. For showtimes, click here.

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