Toronto 2017 Review: If ‘Brad’s Status’ Were a Person on Twitter, You’d Mute Them So Hard
I went to high school with a woman who’s now on a CBS sitcom. I have good friends who are museum curators, authors, and animators. I value our relationships, and I’m genuinely happy for their successes. But in insecure moments, it’s hard not to compare our lives, and maybe to feel competitive or even jealous. Mike White’s Brad’s Status acknowledges these ugly feelings exist ... and that’s about it. With little drama or humor, it mostly amounts to watching a guy complain about his fairly decent life for 100 minutes.
That guy would be Brad, played by Ben Stiller. As the film begins, Brad prepares to take his teenage son Troy (Austin Abrams) on a tour of Boston colleges; with this looming milestone on the horizon, Brad careens into a full-blown mid-life crisis. By almost any measure except his own, Brad’s doing great. His runs his own non-profit organization, he lives in Sacramento in a love house with a devoted wife (Jenna Fischer’s Melanie), and their son is a smart, talented kid. But Brad’s not satisfied, and he lies awake at night contemplating his marriage and financial future.
Above all, he envies his old college buddies, who’ve all apparently gone on to bigger and better (or at least more glamorous) things. Jason (Luke Wilson) struck it rich in the world of finance. Billy (Jemaine Clement) sold his tech company and is already retired and living on the beach in Hawaii. Nick (White, in an amusing meta-cameo) is a wildly successful Hollywood director. Worst of all, Brad’s frenemy rival Craig (Michael Sheen) became a celebrity; working in the White House, writing books, and appearing on TV as a cable news talking head.
Brad barely talks to these guys anymore, but the trip to Boston brings them back into his life. Troy screwed up his calendar and missed his interview at Harvard; Brad wants Craig, who’s a guest lecturer there, to help hook up a meeting. But it’s been so long since they spoke that he doesn’t have his current number, which requires him to reach out to the other friends to track down his contact info. And so Brad reconnects with his friends, spends time with his son, and takes stock of his life.
White is a talented guy, and he’s written honest, funny, and sometimes deeply painful movies in the past. Brad’s Status returns him to familiar territory, but it never comes close to the heights of previous efforts like Chuck & Buck or School of Rock. White’s ideas about the complexities of male friendships and getting older are relatable and universal; maybe too relatable and universal. These subjects have been explored so many times already, and this time White never finds anything particularly new or meaningful to add.
He also cast Stiller in a self-pitying role that strips him of all his strengths as an actor. Even in Stiller’s more serious movies, he tends to play intense, passionate people that give him license to unleash his manic intensity. Brad’s too beaten down for that, and his complaint-filled monotone narration never lets up. The voiceover also undercuts Stiller’s biggest moments; in one key scene, Brad has an emotional epiphany, and rather than let Stiller’s visible reaction tell the story, the voiceover redundantly describes what we’re seeing. Later in the same sequence, Brad explains how he spends so much time trapped in his own head and he finally realized he needed to shut up and just let the world in ... in a voiceover that’s going on in his head. This is no doubt White’s quiet critique of his neurotic hero. It still comes at the expense of what should be the film’s most cathartic scene.
The supporting cast is strong, and Sheen is particularly impressive in the climactic confrontation between Brad and Craig where the two finally express decades of pent-up emotions. The hurt, anger, and discomfort unleashed in that one exchange packs more punch than every other scene in Brad’s Status combined. It feels like it could be the inciting incident of a much richer story, but just as Brad’s Status begins to venture into uncharted territory, it abruptly ends. In theory, that works with White’s minor-key stylings. But the film is so slight and underplayed it leaves you unsatisfied. The movie’s final sequence suggests there may be hope for Brad. But by that point, it’s too late to save Brad’s Status.