As disturbing or angst-ridden as they can get, I have a real affection for the works of Mike White, as both writer and director. His only previous time as a director was for the Molly Shannon-starring work Year of the Dog, but White has a strong track record as a screenwriter, penning such works as The Good Girl, Chuck and Buck, School of Rock, and Beatriz at Dinner from earlier this year. With Brad’s Status, White returns to the director’s chair with a film about comparison anxiety, that sometimes crippling anxiety one gets when they are envious of what someone else has or has accomplished, usually leading to feelings of inferiority. If this doesn’t sound like the perfect Ben Stiller character, I’m not sure what does.
Stiller plays Brad, who works for non-profit companies searching for donors. It’s fulfilling work, until Brad starts comparing what he’s accomplished to the lives of the closest friends he had in college, including a financial big shot (Luke Wilson), a Hollywood producer (White), a tech guru (Jemaine Clement) and an on-air pundit and author (Michael Sheen). When Brad looks at his pared-down life with his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and his son Troy (Austin Abrams from The Kings of Summer, Paper Towns), he sees the life (many lives, actually) that he will never have. And all of this is happening while he is off to visit potential colleges in the New England area for his music-prodigy son, including Harvard.
After a mix up to do his in-person interview at Harvard, Troy is prepared to simply do the interview back home in suburban Sacramento. Brad attempts to pull a few strings by putting out a call to Sheen, who sometimes teaches at Harvard but whose number he doesn’t have. As a result, he has to call a couple of his other old friends to get it, which allows him to do a bit of catching up, during which he finds out that White’s character got married recently, inviting all the old gang except him. Naturally, this discovery stirs up old feelings of inferiority and resentment. Brad’s Status is filled with small moments of indignity that accumulate in Brad’s mind to fester and grow out of control, and his anxiety begins to rub off on his son who is attempting to make a good impression to these potential school choices.
While in Boston, Troy meets up with Ananya (Shazi Raja), a woman who was a couple years ahead of him in the music department at high school, and after initially turning down going to drinks with her and her friends after dinner, Brad sneaks out of their room and heads to the bar anyway hoping to have a conversation with this beautiful young woman, partly to see if he can impress her in any way. They talk most of the night, and by the end of it she’s figured him out so completely we get a sense that she could cut him to shreds if she wanted to. While she’s too kind to do that, that doesn’t stop her from telling him what she sees in his self-obsessed eyes. It’s a devastating yet touching scene that shows what Mike White does so well as a writer of human behavior and conflicting inner thoughts.
As much as Stiller seems to be underplaying Brad with impressive results (all of his fear is behind his eyes), there’s a sequence with Sheen where he’s able to cut loose with an impressive display of emotional fireworks, even if they aren’t entirely justified. Also during that scene, it’s revealed that the friends Brad was so jealous of are each going through their own private hells at the moment, which doesn’t make him feel nearly as good about his own life as it should.
White takes full advantage of the stately beauty of his locations in and around Boston, and it provides much-needed visual stability to contrast with Stiller’s sometimes squirrelly body language. In the end, Brad’s Status is about a many easing back into the idea of his actual life and finding a degree of comfort and even happiness in its stability. I shouldn’t let you think the movie isn’t quite often funny because it absolutely is. Stiller is a master reactor, and while he is often called upon to emote here, he’s also allowed to let his charm and humor peak out from beneath the angst. Writer-director White is a master of blending comedy with something deeper, and Brad’s Status is a worthy addition to his roster.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.