Existence can be a love it or hate it thing — sometimes within the same moment. Some existential crisis films pick a side, but Brad’s Status presents the cognitive dissonance that’s genuine to this struggle. When Brad (Ben Stiller in low-key, hangdog dramatic mode) decides to tag along in support of his teenage son Troy (Austin Abrams projecting low-key mortification for his dad), as he tours Massachusetts universities, it triggers concerns of where the father might have gone wrong with his own college education. Using a vacillating monologue where Brad wonders to himself whether he failed at life and Stiller’s intense brow and distant gaze, writer-director-actor Mike White captures the struggle of the privileged white male as something more than entitled. The film knows this to be problematic and addresses it early on. There’s something humanly inherent in succumbing to the pressures of aging out of relevance that speaks to a will to live a life fulfilled and content — a cruelly fleeting sensation often only recognized when you feel the contrast pain. It’s yin and yang that transcends class privilege.
White presents slight, distant montages in Brad’s eyeline, as he observes old men and young people, while saying things to himself like, “There are moments you realize your entire life is absurd.” As he ponders his old college friends’ perceived achievements as richer men, he says of his amiable and supportive wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer), “Maybe her contentment undermined my ambition.” These ruminations of perceived failure pepper the film with moments of humor that speak to Brad’s pathetic settling, like when the “silver status” of his flying card can’t even buy him a $1600 upgrade to business class, which kind of saves him from a possibly unaffordable impulse buy.
The character is well-defined and not always likeable. This is a dude who quietly delights in Schadenfreude when he finds out the 3-year-old daughter of one of his college friends has a “tethered spine.” He’s that perfect kind of clown who is us but not us and Stiller walks that line with light but cringe-inducing genuineness. Brad is a man so self-absorbed he doesn’t even realize his son has earned such high grades in school as to give him choices between Yale, Harvard and the alma mater Dad settled on: Tufts. Instead, Brad projects his own rationalization of his past on the boy, telling him it’s OK to settle on Tufts if he can’t get into Yale. But then Troy tells him his dream school is Harvard. It takes Brad several double takes and questions to take him out of this selfish time warp and see that his kid has real potential.
The movie carries on with this man’s struggle to realize it is not he who is returning to college. Instead, it’s his son setting off on his own life. This can make for a frustrating kind of drama, but it’s genuine to our frustration with life and our self-perceived human failings. It’s dictated by our inherent limited perspective and moment in time, especially with connections to a vicarious future offered by progeny who are both a part of the parent and their own autonomous selves. Children are both blessed to the parents that create them and doomed to their programming by them. White never over-dramatizes this. He stays true to the internal, stoic male suffering that often leaves outsiders confused, which is why the film’s self-wrestling voice-over and Stiller’s ability to sadly gaze into the distance work so well in this movie. There are moments when Troy just doesn’t understand his father and even chalks it up to a nervous breakdown. Between White’s writing and Stiller’s acting, Brad’s Status gives full life to the internal male voice, which isn’t always pretty or easy to understand from external signals. Yet the film builds to a beautiful if slight moment of realization that it’s simply good to be alive.
Brad’s Status runs 101 minutes and is rated R. It opened in our Miami area at Cinépolis Coconut Grove, iPic North Miami Beach, AMC Aventura 24, AMC Sunset Place 24 and the Landmark at Merrick Park on Friday, Sept. 22. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Amazon Studios/Annapurna Pictures invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.