Have you noticed that little voice in the back of your head that keeps chattering all the time? You know, the one that just asked, “What voice?” Only a short time ago, my own voice was telling me about all the people in my life that I had let down and how I had failed to live up to my own expectations. When I was able to quiet that voice, however, I could look and see how the love with which I was surrounded was more meaningful than any perceived failures. In Mike White’s (“Year of the Dog”) comedy/drama Brad’s Status, 47-year-old Brad Sloan, played to perfection by Ben Stiller (“While We’re Young”), is in the midst of a mid-life crisis, constantly listening to his inner monologue telling him he is a failure because he has fallen short of the material success of his old friends from college.
Brad is not a classic whiner or complainer but a decent and thoughtful person who is more than willing to look at his life and see what has not worked, though his telling us that “the world hated me, and the feeling was mutual” comes close to self pity. Novelist Yann Martel said, “Gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud,” but the cloud does not pass over Brad. Even his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer, “Hall Pass”) becomes frustrated with his neurotic insecurity when he questions her about his possible inheritance when her parents die. On the surface Brad has everything going for him — a comfortable life in Sacramento with a loving wife, a brilliant and talented musician in his son Troy (Austin Abrams, “Gangster Squad”), and a satisfying job managing a non-profit company which provides services to others.
To Brad, however, the thought that his accomplishments in life do not measure up to his exaggerated picture of his college friends success haunts him as he and Troy take off to New England to visit elite colleges in the Northeast where his son has a good chance of being accepted. Cluttering Brad’s thoughts and dreams are friends like Billy Wearsiter (Jemaine Clement, “What We Do in the Shadows”) who retired at age forty after selling his hi-tech company and moved to Hawaii where he is living a life of leisure with women around day and night. He also thinks about film director Nick Pascale (Mike White, “The D Train”) whose luxury home received a spread in Architecture Digest magazine.
There is also hedge fund manager Jason Hatifeld (Luke Wilson, “Concussion”) who married into wealth and who Brad believes owns a private jet, and of course Craig Wilson (Michael Sheen, “Passengers”), a Harvard lecturer, best-selling author and TV personality for whom Brad saves his most venomous feelings. Although Brad’s emotional distress is the centerpiece of Brad’s Status, the film also scores in its depiction of the tense but touching father/son relationship, handled with naturalness and sensitivity. In contrast to Brad’s hyper self-critical persona, Troy is easy going and unusually self confident for a teenager, though, like many teens, he expresses his feelings in monosyllables.
When Brad becomes upset with Troy when he forgets the day of his admissions interview at Harvard, the boy seems to take it all in stride. Of course, he is very grateful when dad pulls strings with his “friend” Craig who secures an appointment for Troy with both a prominent music professor at the school, and the Dean of Admissions. With Brad continuing to beat himself up for real or perceived failures, however, Troy asks his dad if he is having a nervous breakdown which seems like a reasonable assumption given Brad’s mental contortions which even extend to imagining being jealous of Troy’s future fame.
Brad’s Status is an honest film that captures White’s incisive deadpan humor and his ability to create characters who talk and act like real human beings, not cardboard caricatures. One of the high points of the film is Brad’s meeting with Troy’s musician friend Ananya (Shazi Raja, “Salvation” TV series) during a sleepless night. Without pulling punches, she confronts him about his attitude of white male privilege, asking him directly, “Do you actually know anybody who is poor?” It is a question that never receives an answer. With her admonitions ringing in his ears, he is moved to tears during Ananya’s concert performance of Dvorak’s “Humoresque.”
Brad’s epiphany at the concert may reflect the dawning realization that being alive itself is cause for celebration and that who you are as a person is more important than what you have or what you do. Ultimately, White will leave it up to Brad to discover that, in the phrase of author Charles Eisenstein, “Abundance is all around us . . . The sky starts where the ground ends; we need only look with different eyes to realize we are already there.”