Reviewed by Lee Hill
Ben Stiller is Brad Sloan, a Generation Xer suffering from a serious case of mid-life crisis blues. On the surface, Brad seems to have a pretty good life in suburban Sacramento. He is married to an attractive loving wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer) works in the California state legislature, while Brad runs a small NGO that links worthy charities to philanthropists. Their only child, Troy (Austin Abrams), is a promising musician with high school grades that make him Ivy League material. Yet Brad feels increasingly like a failure; eclipsed by his college pals from Tufts, who have achieved fame, wealth, power and fantastic sex lives.
Brad’s funk of self-loathing and envy unfold during a trip with Troy to tour potential colleges in Boston. This journey is viewed largely through Brad’s narration, a mix of depressive day dreams and doubts about what should have been and what isn’t – undercut by the external reality that Brad just can’t appreciate the good fortune that has blessed him and his family.
His college buddies are all men’s magazine profiles come to life. The once closeted Nick (Mike White) is now a successful gay film director a la George Cukor with a mansion, a polyamorous partner, private jet and cute dog. Jason (Luke Wilson) is an absurdly rich investor with a trophy wife, beautiful if spoiled children and the odd mistress on the side. The stoner of the group Billy (Jermaine Clement) is an entrepreneur in Hawaii, a sex and drug fueled Richard Branson type, whose every wacky idea turns into cash. Then there is Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), a telegenic political commentator and author; the kind of media celebrity who moves in charmed circles, collects honorary degrees and gets the best tables in exclusive restaurants. Brad, who was once the brightest star of this group as well as its conscience, feels as if the glamour, influence, big bucks and hedonistic thrills could have been his, if he had only been less idealistic and less of a “beta-male”.
White, best known as the screenwriter of School of Rock and the TV series, Enlightenment, amus-ingly makes the case for Brad’s self-doubt, while puncturing that same point of view as lazy male angst. In contrast to Brad’s helicopter parent approach to the stress of finding the right college, his son, Troy, is not only laid back, but more quietly confident than his father. And when Brad attempts to impart his cynical life lessons to one of Troy’s friends, Ananya (Shazi Raja), a Harvard Junior with a dream to translate her government studies into real world activism, he is politely, but firmly called out on his privilege and self-pity.
White’s film is a droll, light handed satire of how often the grass, particularly to a bourgeois bohemian like Brad, looks greener on the other side. Many of us can relate to Brad’s feelings of inadequacy and much of the humour in the film stems from the recognition that anyone can fall into the zero-sum game of comparing their achievements to those of friends, family, co-workers, etc.
When White was younger, he explored this conumdrum more darkly in Chuck & Buck (2000) in which the reunion of old friends was not only about status and schadenfreude, but sexual confu-sion. In Brad’s Status, the lessons learned by Brad are less apocalyptic. As the title character, Ben Stiller delivers a nuanced spin on the kind of neurotic uptight personas that have been his stock in trade in everything from There’s Something About Mary and Meet the Parents to his work for Noah Baumbach in While You’re Young and The Meyerowitz Stories. Stiller plays Brad just right – as a man who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown at times, but just needs to take a deep breath and calm down.
Director: Mike White
Writer: Mike White
Stars: Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer
Brad’s Status is in cinemas from the 5th of January
Lee Hill is a film critic and author.