This year is simultaneously one of the best and worst years for movies. Big name studio efforts are failing spectacularly, leading to a historically weak year at the box office. Away from that wreckage, the independent film scene has been thriving, boasting a high number of daring successes. Most of the year’s strongest releases are indie films, with a few notable exceptions. “Brad’s Status” is the opposite of one of those exceptions.
The trailer suggests a heartwarming midlife crisis dramedy, which “Brad’s Status” is not. I actually enjoyed the misleading marketing more — the trailer does a better job selling us the wrong story than the movie does telling the right story. “Brad’s Status” seems to think a protagonist’s heart in the wrong place is an excuse for halfhearted filmmaking.
Brad is a good father, has a good marriage, and lives in a good house. He owns a respectable nonprofit, while a handful of his childhood friends are jerks who have found fame and success. His son is a brilliant musician who will probably get into Harvard and Yale, and Brad is financially secure enough to take his son to visit both universities. And he gets to be Ben Stiller. What complaints could Brad possibly have?
A lot, it turns out. And that’s ok: the space between the struggles of poverty and the trappings of wealth is rife with existential yearning. It provides enough freedom to allow boredom and longing, yet not enough to let one realize every passing whim. A midlife crisis within this space is a complex source of depression — but “Brad’s Status” is not the movie to navigate that. Its tone is too fickle to either empathize with or satirize such a scenario.
At times the film swings for satire, playfully admitting that Brad’s difficulties could be chalked up to ‘privileged white guy problems’. Mike White’s screenplay trivializes his issues and tears Brad down into a source of comedy: a martyr deserving of our humored scrutiny. But at other times it acknowledges the legitimate pain that Brad feels trapped in; it builds him up into a figure that we can identify with. The film’s inability to commit to either tone renders Brad quite the ineffective protagonist: do we keep him at arm’s length or embrace him with understanding?
“Brad’s Status” is most annoying when it thinks this indecision is profound. It uses its lack of commitment to ignore conventions like any kind of resolution — thematic or narrative. It’s not brave or subversive to leave things out of a movie that needs them. Mike White is no Yorgos Lanthimos: the latter constructs existential dramas that don’t necessitate a solid conclusion; “Brad’s Status” just fails to include one.
The other pervasive problem is the narration. Over and over, Brad’s thoughts — coupled with frequent flashbacks — explain exactly what is about to happen just before it does, and then explain exactly how Brad is feeling right after. The narration robs conflicts of their power and invalidates the need for Ben Stiller to act.
Good thing he still does. The cast contributes great performances all around: Ben Stiller deeply appreciates the character, Jenna Fischer is spirited, Austin Abrams is the most accurate teenage son this side of reality, and Jemaine Clement and Michael Sheen are comically unlikable as Brad’s old friends.
There are a couple laughs to be had, but “Brad’s Status” doesn’t work on multiple levels. Comparison is the thief of joy — but Brad’s comparison doesn’t have to be the thief of our joy.