A phrase rarely uttered in Hollywood is, "There just aren't enough movies about white men."
That's because it wouldn't be true. Despite the conversations that are frequently being had in arts communities about the diversity issue on screen, it isn't one we necessarily see being revolutionized anytime soon based on the box office features list. However, this begs the question of whether or not a film should be considered poor because it is simply doing nothing new, or if it's bad for artistry reasons.
Enter Brad's Status, the latest flick in the portfolio of Mike White, previously known for his work on School of Rock, The Good Girl, and surprisingly, The Emoji Movie this past summer. It stars Ben Stiller as the titular character, a middle-aged man who runs a non-profit and lives in the seemingly sad Sacramento, California, questioning what he has accomplished and the decisions he's made in life over the course of his son's college tours in Massachusetts. "Anxious" mostly likely would be the word the film and its creator would use to describe the energy surrounding the story. "Self-interested" might be a better call.
Brad worries about money, and his son's future, and just about everything else, too. When he realizes Troy has the right set of skills and talents to make it into Harvard through the music program, Brad wants to work in every way to accomplish it. However, he also flips back and forth between admitting the reality of the situations he's in and how much they suck compared to how his friends live.
A token of what seem like cameo appearances arise throughout as Brad thinks about the lives of his more successful former college friends, a group as twisted up on the inside as they seem content on the outside. Craig (Michael Sheen) is a D.C. insider-turned-writer who's as dated as they come in ideology and also miserable at home. Jason (Luke Wilson) runs a massively successful hedge-fund with a beautiful wife and family by his side, until one of the children gets sick and his financial crimes come back to bite him. Billy (Jemaine Clement) was able to retire at forty after selling his tech company, but his time on the beaches of Maui with his two bikini-clad girlfriends is only a mask for his severe alcohol and drug addictions. The only exception to this pattern is Nick, played by Director White, who we never hear about being any less posh and placid than he and his husband appear in their Architectural Digest spread.
In short, the lives we think we desire are not always the lives we actually would like to live.
Brad comes to this conclusion more than once during the film, realizing that he wouldn't have wanted to marry anyone other than his simple, loving wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer), nor would he have given up the time spent with his son. The problem is that his lesson does not stick, and instead makes audiences sit through scene after scene of his winded narrations about the pros and cons of his life. In things we could have just as easily seen play out on camera we must hear in Brad's head, whether he's getting dinner or sitting up in his insomniac ways at night.
The acting in this film redeems the at times petty plot lines. Despite Brad's almost textbook blandness and un-favorability, Stiller keeps us open to his ability to lighten up and be grateful almost through to the end, as we watch him crawl back into the bed (the same place we found him in the opening scenes, the place he leaves around the midpoint to try and find more meaning to his life) and reflect on what he's "learned." The only positive for the heavy narration may be that it is so super-imposed we blame the filmmaker and not the character for its burden. This is also likely to be a breakout role for relative newcomer Austin Abrams. Stiller might have had our hearts, but Abrams steals them each time he forgives and comforts his dysfunctional father, somehow managing to be a truly genuine kid while still coming off as totally normal. It's subtle and it's superb.
The problems Brad's Status looks to address are out there, but modernity has encouraged us to turn a blind eye to them, the way you might to a suburban children's soccer game. These issues don't require the massive platform they're given here to play out on. That's not to say there's nothing to be showcased in the common male midlife crisis. It's instead to confidently defend that there are stranger turns this film could have dabbled in taking that perhaps wouldn't have left me as lethargic and in need of my bed as Brad.
Brad's Status will be released limitedly September 15th via Amazon Studios.
Rachel A.G. Gilman is a writer, a radio producer, and probably the girl wearing the Kinks shirt. Visit her website for more.
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