Films about men going through mid-life crises are a dime a dozen, so one might be suspicious of yet another one. Brad’s Status, however, may feel like a familiar story, but it explores its themes with a nuance and sincerity that elevate it from the often clichéd stories in this sub-genre.
In Brad’s Status, Ben Stiller stars as Brad, a neurotic middle-aged father and husband who seemingly has it all: he’s married to a loving, supportive wife Melanie (played with sensitivity by The Office’s Jenna Fischer) and has a talented teenage son, Troy (Austin Abrams). They all live comfortably in their home in Sacramento, California, and yet something keeps Brad awake at night. He appears to be experiencing the onset of a mid-life crisis, one that involves him worrying about the trajectory of his life as he nears his fifties and realizes that he has – in his own words – “plateaued.”
Indeed, Brad can’t help but feel inferior when comparing his life to those of his richer, more successful group of friends: there’s Craig (Michael Sheen), a political pundit and author who is somewhat of a celebrity figure; Billy (Jemaine Clement), a tech entrepreneur who has retired early and spends his days relaxing on the beaches of Hawaii; Jason (Luke Wilson) a hedge-fund manager who may or may not own a private jet; and Nick (played by the director Mike White himself), a successful Hollywood filmmaker who hosts lavish pool parties at his mansion.
Next to these men, Brad feels like a failure. Rather than choosing to climb the corporate ladder, Brad decided to start his own non-for-profit organization, and as a result, he never became as obscenely rich as his friends. Indeed, the film takes us into the mind of Brad by showing us exaggerated sequences of just how glamorous he imagines his friends’ lives to be. But despite Brad’s envy, Melanie reminds him: “We’re not poor.” So, if Brad lives a comfortable existence, then why can’t he stop worrying? Melanie encourages him to be happy with what he has, and Brad wonders if her contentment with their simple life has stifled his own sense of ambition.
If you have seen White’s HBO series Enlightened (starring the brilliant Laura Dern), you might already be familiar with the melancholic tone here that combines drama with moments of humour to explore the existential crises of his protagonists. This is mostly achieved through an extensive use of voice-over narration in which Brad continues to ruminate on the disappointment of his life.
What kicks the film’s plot in to gear, however, is Brad’s trip to the East coast with his son, who is planning to visit various colleges in and around Boston. When Brad discovers that Troy plans to apply for prestigious universities such as Harvard, he is shocked. Not only is Brad envious of his former classmates, but he now has to reconcile the fact that his own son is smarter than he is and will most likely go on to achieve more success than he ever did. Throughout the narrative, White explores how Brad is constantly trying to project an image of success towards Troy, and the result often leads to embarrassing, even cringe-worthy situations, such as when Brad tries to upgrade their plane tickets to business class, or when Brad desperately tries to plead with a college admissions officer to rearrange an admissions interview for Troy.
Some critics might dismiss the film for seemingly lacking dramatic stakes. After all, the plot is very spare, and Brad spends most of the film complaining about his own life. White acknowledges this through a number of characters who call out Brad’s privilege. One female student he meets chastises him for his “first-world problems”: while Brad whines about not being invited to fancy dinners, other less fortunate people might not even have dinner at all. The rest of the film, then, becomes about Brad’s journey in realizing his privilege and learning to accept that his problems are not as serious in the grander scheme of things.
White’s depiction of the father-son relationship is the heart of the film and this is where the director subverts most of the clichés associated with similar stories. For example, one might expect Troy to be a typical, moody teenager who is embarrassed by his father, but while there are several scenes in which this might be the case, Troy nevertheless loves Brad and there are many charming scenes which show that despite Troy’s desire to go out into the world as an independent young adult, he still relies on his father for support. Ben Stiller and Austin Abrams work brilliantly together and their performances help the film build to an unexpectedly moving conclusion between their two characters.
What makes the film work is the non-judgemental sense of empathy White shows towards Brad. Yes, many of Brad’s worries may be misguided, but the film suggests that it’s only natural to compare our success to those around us. The key issue, White suggests, is to not let these thoughts consume our daily lives. Whether you are a young student or middle-aged parent like Brad, anyone can relate to Brad’s story, because the wisdom of the film lies in its message that, ultimately, although we may sometimes feel inferior to our peers, we should all learn to follow our own paths and be grateful for what we have.