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Review: Brad’s Status – “Stylistically daring”

Being released after the Christmas holidays, in the middle of awards season but without the same buzz of all those nominated films won’t help Brad’s Status find an audience. The film’s awkward title probably won’t do it any good either and most importantly – as the Time’s Up movement rightfully captivates the zeitgeist – the story of a privileged straight white American male having a midlife crisis will turn many people off. Yet there is plenty to appreciate in this indie dramedy that’s definitely more drama than comedy and way more than just another Ben Stiller vehicle.

The veteran Hollywood star plays the titular character, a man whose neurotic traits and overall background we’ve seen before in many of his other roles. However, multi-talented writer/director Mike White – a face you’ll recognise from his character actor stints – has crafted a rather introspective piece soaked in his unique kind of sardonic humour. His satire of the “#firstworldproblems” society we live in reaches hilarious peaks here but if you’re expecting the laugh out loud set pieces of Stiller’s other kind of comedies you’ll be disappointed.

Brad runs a small non-profit organization in Sacramento where he lives with his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and their teenage son Troy (Austin Abrams). The film kicks off with an insomniac Brad unable to stop pondering about the state of his life as he looks at the Instagram accounts of old college friends who have seemingly achieved way more success and fulfilment. Craig (Michael Sheen) is a political journalist turned into TV celebrity, Billy (Jemaine Clement) is an entrepreneur who has made so much money he’s already retired in Hawaii, Jason (Luke Wilson) is an affirmed lawyer with his own private jet, whilst Nick (White himself) is a successful Hollywood director who just got gay-married and didn’t even invite Brad.

Brad’s voiceover runs throughout the whole film, providing a constant commentary on his feelings. It’s a narrative device often frowned upon for being overexploited by filmmakers because it doesn’t always serve the storytelling in a constructive way. Here though it becomes the trademark of the film’s narrative as we’re purposely inside Brad’s mind from start to finish. Some viewers may find such stylistic choice a bit too much but its consistent use makes it an integral element of the story without ever turning it into a gimmick. In that respect, Stiller does an egregious job at following up what’s going in Brad’s head with his demeanour and a mask of perplexity and disorientation on his face.

Brad takes his son on a tour of American colleges on the East Coast where the teenager has applied, including his father’s alma mater and bigger ivy leagues ones. Initially, the man seems to be on board with the experience, even feeling like he can project his need for accomplishment on his son’s promising future. However, as some circumstances get him back in touch with those old friends who have left him behind and that he’s become envious of, Brad’s midlife crisis gets deeper and threatens to jeopardise his relationship with Troy.

An existentialist dramedy that’s equally entertaining and thought-provoking, Brad’s Status marks White’s second theatrical feature as a director after 2007’s Year of the Dog and cements his ability to observe the human condition with the perfect balance of smart humour and poignancy. It’s something showcased in the various indie films that made his screenwriting career (The Good Girl, School of Rock, Nacho Libre), as well as the short-lived and criminally overlooked HBO dramedy Enlightened, which he co-created with star Laura Dern.

Since the show’s cancellation in 2013 White has continued to explore similar themes in his feature film scripts like last year’s Beatriz at Dinner. He is one of those underrated filmmaking voices we need to hear more from. Brad’s Status may be a tough sell in a moment when the attention has rightfully shifted to the female perspective but it’s stylistically daring and worth seeing even more so, for this reason.

After all, the issues tackled by the story transcend gender and genuinely reflect our voyeuristic obsession with comparing ourselves to others and our inability to ever feel satisfied. Such social commentary is fertile territory to hopefully stimulate discussion and confrontation for viewers who are open to listening and the cast’s brilliance makes it all the more authentic. Ben Stiller probably offers a career-best performance with a nuanced and understated approach to his tormented protagonist. Austin Abrams, who showed promise in Paper Towns, confirms he’s a young talent to watch and Michael Sheen, as usual, owns every scene he appears in, no matter how brief.

Brad’s Status is in UK cinemas now.

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