Decades ago, Mike White and his father toured prospective colleges together, and the experience set off a kind of mid-life crisis in the elder of the two. Faced with the prospect of losing his son to adulthood as well as the challenge of figuring out how to pay for the tuition at a private university like Wesleyan, Mel White spiraled into despair and regret. Despite his successful career as a Reverend and speechwriter/ghostwriter for Religious Right figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Mel, a secretly gay man trying to change the system from within, suddenly wondered if he’d wasted his life. Had all of his work be in service to people and a congregation who would reject him if they knew the truth out about his sexuality? Had he done enough to be able to provide his son with enough opportunities for a better future? Moreover, was his son bound to become even more successful than him, and if so how would that make him feel?
That…that would probably make for a more interesting movie than Brad’s Status. To be clear, almost nothing of Mel’s unique situation is in Brad’s Status. Instead, Mike has taken that experience and used it as an inspiration for a story about a fictional father (played by Ben Stiller) giving into depression and an unhealthy amount of self-reflection while taking his son (played by Austin Abrams) on a tour of prestigious East Coast colleges.
There’s some of Mel inside of there, but there’s also a lot of Mike as well and not just because the writer-director-sometimes-actor also cameos as a successful and seemingly happy Hollywood filmmaker. No, it’s also because Brad’s Status reflects Mike’s own neuroses and insecurities over the effect social media on our ability to truly appreciate what we have. It’s no surprise that the man behind HBO’s Enlightened, a show about the challenging and sometimes fruitless quest for happiness in modern day America, would gravitate toward a “Facebook made Ben Stiller sad” movie like Brad’s Status. It’s also of a piece with the growing sub-section of indie films taking a Black Mirror-like look at the intersection of social media and society. See also: Ingrid Goes West.
It’s just, Mel’s real-life story and experience has so much more dramatic potential than Mike’s fictional tale of a largely unlikable Ben Stiller taking a minute to realize Instagram and Facebook realities, Forbes net worth rankings and lifestyle magazine cover stories are often complete and utter bullshit or at least serve no real purpose to our day to day lives. Brad’s Status reaches this inevitable point effectively. The moment when the titular Brad realizes his now-super rich and successful college friends (played by White, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement) have problems of their own and are most likely deeply unhappy is among the most satisfying scenes the film has to offer.
However, getting there means spending over half of Brad’s Status watching a highly privileged white dude complain to himself (via voiceover) about how bad he’s had it. It’s a nakedly honest portrayal of some of the least sympathetic and most self-centered thoughts we might have from time to time, particularly as advanced age forces a scoreboard comparison between ourselves and our former classmates and friends, whose victories and exploits are easily viewable via Google, Facebook or elsewhere. Thankfully, a crucial, halfway-point-of-the-movie scene between Stiller and an idealistic young coed whose having none of his “woe is me” bullshit absolutely nails everything Brad is missing about life and what the universe does or does not owe him.
The whole setup, however, invites you to question why should really feel any empathy for or invest in Brad’s emotional crisis. An early scene in which Brad complains about the size of his upper-middle-class home in comparison to the mansions now occupied by his old buddies left me scoffing and wanting to scream, “My God, look at the size of your kitchen! Open floor design, stainless steel appliances and an island in the middle? That’s the trifecta!”
Of course, in that moment I was guilty of the same sin I found so unpleasant in Stiller’s character, meaning I might have missed the whole point of the movie. Brad’s journey is meant to be a universal one. Even if the details are changed, we can all just as easily fall into the trap of looking over at the neighbors with envy instead of looking back at our own home with pride. Stiller plays this journey to perfection, and Mike White’s directorial flourishes during Brad’s heightened fantasies over what life must be like for the filthy rich elevates the material and injects much-needed humor.
It’s enough to make me appreciate Brad’s Status and what Mike White is trying to say. However, it’s not enough to make me want to ever watch this movie again. I’d rather see a documentary about Mike’s dad. He’s already been the inspiration behind two movies this year. First, Beatriz at Dinner (which Mike wrote); now, Brad’s Status (which Mike wrote and directed). Mike should really make a doc about him now.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you can focus less on the specific signifiers of white privilege and more on the universal tale of social media-induced unhappiness and mid-life goalpost-setting then Brad’s Status is an effective dramedy with capable performances and direction.