Aside from its utterly terrible name, which seems to imply that perhaps Brad is in a coma and not just another iteration of Ben Stiller playing a walking midlife crisis, Brad’s Status isn’t much of a movie either. The second feature written and directed by Mike White (after 2007’s Year of the Dog), the film treads the well-worn ground of suburban discontent—both in the cinematic canon and care of its lead actor. Brad (Stiller) unhappily runs a non-profit, his old college friends are all rich and his son Troy (Austin Abrams) is going off to college. These plot threads are listed in descending order according to how the film weighs their importance, but in ascending order given how much time the film dwells on each. Worse, most of this miscalculated formula is delivered to the audience through voiceover.
Voiceover isn’t an instant damnation of a film’s ability to tell a story, usually used to more effectively put us inside the heads of the characters we’re watching. When we hear Brad’s voice, though, it’s saturated with such delusional depression that his voiceover moves us even further away from him. We see his nice house, his nice son and his nice wife (Jenna Fischer, whose role is insultingly slight). Ignoring all these things to be self-obsessed with perceived inadequacies could be a relatable piece of mental disruption. People think and feel things all the time that they shouldn’t, but Brad’s Status doesn’t grapple with this unfair chemical equation, choosing instead to go a much more trite route focused on the external tentpoles of career and legacy. Any internal struggle is ignored or replaced with flighty daydreams even less engaging than those in Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty adaptation.
White’s daydreams don’t have the visual panache, the budget or the imagination of Mitty’s globetrotting fantasies, instead returning to the same cliched shots of a private jet or a sunset-kissed beach as Brad runs with a bikini’d teen under each arm. Wheel of Fortune contestants dream bigger than this; the videos detailing their vacation spots have more visual movement. Brad’s Status is a decades-old commercial for a red sports car.
Though Stiller’s perfect for this role—he has been having midlife crises since 2001’s Zoolander which means he’s had plenty of time to nail the disaffected, wistful stare and deadpan cluelessness he brings to each of these roles—and aided ably by Abrams, both are stranded by a script that seems determined to be a comedy despite its arid observational humor (teens say “cool” too much, are embarrassed by their parents). The duo take a trip together to Boston to visit colleges (Harvard, his son’s choice, and Tufts, Brad’s alma mater), but Brad’s mind is elsewhere, either with the imagined lives of his former friends (played badly by Michael Sheen and Jemaine Clement, both affecting an American accent, and passably by Luke Wilson, who milks a brief phone call) or on himself. He looks at the ceiling at night thinking about and narrating his life, his insomnia never a plot point, never impacting the character, just a convenience. If everyone else is asleep, there’s no need to write conversations or develop other characters.
On the Boston trip, Brad and Troy interact with admissions employees and other prospective students, which brings up enough minor drama that Brad wishes to prove himself useful and powerful to his son. He calls in favors, gets a small taste of power, then meets some of Troy’s friends who already attend Harvard, two pretty girls who, after they’re finished being ogled and fantasized about (with whole scenes shot of them both admiring Brad), tell Brad (and the audience) what he needs, but doesn’t want, to hear.
The would-be lecher is put in his place, but there is no feeling of righteousness, or success, or even embarrassment for this pathetic protagonist. Just cinematic ennui. No drama comes of it, no strained relationship between Brad and his son or wife. Many encounters in Brad’s Status seem like they’ve come out of a vast Matrix-like world, the humans replaced with a computer programming philosophy that adheres to the strategy of “do one thing and do it well,” though lapsing on the second part.
Slogging forward with nothing progressing its plot but the arbitrary orbit of the sun, the film could well function as a movie dealing with later-in-life depression diagnoses. The monotony and meaningless are all there, the mood swings, the dissociation. But every creative problem White gives himself receives the most boring, trite solution, each chance for artistry stifled by mediocrity. Inevitably, more time will be spent mulling over the title of Brad’s Status than the film itself.
Director: Mike White
Writer: Mike White
Starring: Ben Stiller, Michael Sheen, Jenna Fischer, Luke Wilson, Austin Abrams, Jemaine Clement
Release Date: September 15, 2017