TIFF Review: 'Brad's Status'

Brad’s Status
(USA, 101 min.)
Written and directed by Mike White
Starring: Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement
Programme: Platform (World Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF
Ben Stiller renews himself as an actor in Brad’s Status. The Zoolander star dives into his deepest role yet as Brad Sloan, an affable fortysomething who finds himself in a midlife crisis when his comfortable, if completely safe, life in Sacramento seems bland in comparison to the updates of his college buddies. The actor finds in Brad Sloane what Jim Carrey had in Truman Burbank and Andy Kaufman—a comedic character with just a few more dramatic edges to fully show off his chops. Brad’s old chums are objects of envy for their cushy gigs, early retirements, private jets, exciting weddings, and supermodel wives and Stiller marinates in Brad’s dissatisfaction like an über-cranky George Bailey.

Brad finds himself on this soul-searching reappraisal of his life when he should be helping his son, Troy (Austin Abrams), choose the right path for his own life. Father and son go on a college tour to consider Troy’s possibilities, including a cushy program at Harvard that might not be too lofty an ambition if Troy plays his application just right. This college tour offers a trip down memory lane for Brad as he considers the path not taken. What feels like comfort and modest success—a respectable non-profit start-up, a loving wife (Jenna Fischer), and a good son—now seems like settling.

Brad’s status needs to change, but moping about it doesn’t do him, or Troy, any good. He goes into super-awkward-cringe-worthy-dad mode as Troy tours campuses. Offering unnecessary lectures, fawning over co-eds, and venting at the most inappropriate moments, Brad looks to be flying off the rails quickly. Despite the impending car crash, it’s hard to look away.

More than once do the unfortunate ears that get caught in the crosshairs of Brad’s self-pity point out how good he has it in life. His jealous visions of his former buddies’ success, on the other hand, might all be fantasies conjured in his own mind. As Brad encounters the divides between the life he wants and the life he has, the film offers a basic and earnest question that we all need to encounter sooner than later: how much do we need from life in order to be happy?

It’s a fair question to ask and writer/director Mike White probes contemporary perceptions of status and merit that are in overdrive in today’s hyper-vanity plague of selfies and social media. White’s perceptive character study illustrates the ways in which our ideas of success fluctuate according to “Likes!” and impressions or, worse, how all these status updates inspire us to imagine fantasy lives instead of enjoying the life before us.

Brad’s Status marks the sophomore feature from White as a director after Year of the Dog and creating the TV series Enlightened with Laura Dern. It’s a respectable continuation of his work as a director, but it’s far more interesting to see his hand as a writer on the heels of his other (and, perhaps, stronger) release this year, Beatriz at Dinner. Brad and Beatriz both interrogate contemporary social attitudes through intimate character studies that perceive the world through the eyes of a troubled soul who feels increasingly at odds with the life that he or she sees. Whereas Brad has every reason to be content and, arguably, encounters what a few secondary characters dub “First World Problems,” Beatriz, played by Salma Hayek in one of the year’s best performances, finds herself a victim in an America in which white privilege deals a stacked deck.

One wishes that White had followed a cue from Beatriz at Dinner director Miguel Arteta who harnessed Salma Hayek’s fully realized performance to convey all these tensions and anxieties on her weary and expressive face. Stiller’s performance is every bit as committed as Hayek’s is, but Brad’s Status relies a bit too heavily on narration that voices Brad’s insecurity. The voiceover certainly captures Brad’s mile-a-minute neuroses and humorous observations on PC culture, yet when the film ends with an unexpectedly emotional shot of Stiller silently taking stock of Brad’s life and the years that lie before him, there’s a difference between showing and telling leaves one wishing the film did a bit more of the former and less of the latter.

White has a very good hand with actors, though, and Brad’s Status finds a winning ensemble from its lead to the bit players. Abrams gives a true breakthrough performance as Troy with a natural turn as an angsty, brooding teen who can’t hide his mix of love and embarrassment in his dad’s presence. The quartet of stars playing Brad’s college friends—Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement, White himself, and most notably Michael Sheen in one of his better turns—challenge the way we see Brad by presenting characters far more likable and fallible than Brad characterizes them in voiceover. One must also note the inclusivity of the casting in Brad’s Status since White and company make an admirable effort to diversify the cast as much as possible outside of Brad’s inner circle. The film uses the range of talent on display as part of the joke, too, as it draws upon our perceptions of ourselves as cultured people with some degree of wokeness acting as a measure of our success. Brad’s Status is ultimately Stiller’s show, though. His character isn’t an easy guy to like, but despite Brad’s mopey self-pity, Stiller’s heartfelt turn keeps us rooting for Brad to wake up.

Brad’s Status opens in theatres September 2017.

TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more information.