Brad’s Status

Year: 2017
Studio: Amazon Studios
Director: Mike White
Writer: Mike White
Cast: Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Shazi Raja, Luisa Lee

This movie felt like it was writing my life and telling my own story directly to me more and more with each passing minute, the way actors always use that overused term when they like a script – that it 'speaks to them'.

Brad (Ben Stiller) is in a very particular place in his life you can never understand unless you're in your late 40 or early 50s, male, discovering that maybe Hollywood has been lying to you and dreams don't come true and particularly if you work in the arts or media sector – though I suspect it's applicable to areas that are just as competitive and based on luck. Before the story had even really begun, I felt in sync with the character more than I have in any movie in years.

The plot is simply about Brad and his son Troy (Austin Abrams) heading across the country to investigate colleges Troy has in his sights. They're leaving their wife/mother Melanie (Jenna Fischer, and what a pleasure to see her in something again – she deserved a much bigger career) back home where she has to work and it's a chance not just to bond as a dad and son but relive a little bit of youth as well.

While there, eating in hotels and restaurants, touring campuses and sometimes catching up with old colleagues and friends, examples and millstones about just where Brad's life has ended up start to pile on top of him with ever increasing ferocity. And considering where he started – waking up in the middle of the night wondering if his family have enough to live on – he's not in much of a frame of mind to be taking it all in.

But it's the universality of those barbs I responded to at every step – things I imagine every one of my peers feel but which we all suffer in isolation. If it's not a world full of younger, more attractive, more energetic and more idealistic women it seems life's taunting us with when we have a spouse or partner right in front of us plenty of men would kill for, it's the way every single one of his former classmates seems to have struck the mother lode in life with more success, riches and social status than him.

Craig (Michael Sheen) was a political animal and has become a bestselling author, feted and beloved wherever he goes. In one poignant scene about how money talks and those of us who don't have it are doomed to constant emasculation, Brad is shunted to an awful restaurant table by a snooty young greeter, his request about moving to a better one falling on deaf ears. He's there to meet Craig, and when the latter walks in, the greeter is all over him, immediately moving them somewhere better despite his never having been there before.

Then there's Billy (Jemaine Clement), who sold his online service for a fortune and now lives on the beach in Hawaii with two girlfriends, spending his days surfing and shagging, and Jason (Luke Wilson), a Wall St type who's done so well he has a private plane.

Brad also meets some old friends of Troy's, Ananya (Shazi Raja) and Maya (Luisa Lee), two beautiful twentysomethings who represent all the idealism, opportunity and optimism about the world he seems to have lost. In one of the film's most poignant sequences, after Ananya has asked he and Troy to come for a drink one night, Troy has turned in but Brad, unable to resist spending time with such an intriguing creature, goes along. A much lesser film would have him putting moves on the young woman, but they just talk.

And it's the content of the conversation that's as lively as it is heartbreaking. Ananya is full of righteous anger about social justice and it's exactly the way Brad still wants to be that decades of living in the real world has beaten out of him. He's inspired, terrified and jealous of Ananya's zeal in equal measure, and the only thing he has to show her any kind of superiority of experience is to shoot her idealism down by telling her how hard and cruel the world is once you've been in it with a few responsibilities for a few years.

It's a desperate shot to be relevant and authoritative to her but all it does is put Ananya offside because he's essentially rubbishing her belief system and confirming to her what an old square he is, making him even less relevant and interesting to her. Even though they part ways amicably at the end of the night you can tell she's checked out, and Brad walks back to the hotel alone nursing the final blow – with even the power to impress a pretty young woman with his worldliness taken from him.

There were only two things about it that rankled me a little bit. The first one is that writer/director Mike White, who's written a character so perfectly pitched, doesn't really know how to end it. During the restaurant scene where Brad reconnects with Craig, the latter tells Brad that quite aside from the fantasies he has about how great their lives are, everyone else's life is a mess too.

Craig himself, after ghosting Brad when the latter asked him to invest in his social services start-up years before, found himself overwhelmed by the demands of his sudden fame. Billy is a drug user and a drunk, aimless after selling his business and having nothing to fill his time. And Jason – as Brad has already discovered during a harrowing phone call not only doesn't own a plane at all, he's dealing with a terrifying illness one of his kids has been struck down with.

It's a neatish way of telling Brad (and us) that life isn't rosy for anybody, and that he actually has a lot to be grateful for. But it's kind of shoehorned in and didn't feel terribly authentic, as if writer/director White knew he had to give Brad perspective on his middle aged ennui and couldn't think of any better way to do it.

The second thing, from the same restaurant scene, doesn't have as much impact but it made me lose a little but of the relatability and sympathy I'd built up for the character, and it's when he turns on Craig kind of cruelly even after the former has not only explained himself and acknowledged how bad a friend he's been but enlightened Brad about jealousy, reality and rose coloured glasses.

But apart from the beautiful characterisation and all the devices used to convey the character (including the liberal use of a softly spoken, languorous voiceover) the other big plus was how real the characters were. Such an approach is given flesh firstly in the scene with Ananya at the bar, when her rejection of Brad is all in tiny gestures and body language rather than overt actions like laughing or calling him a loser, like a less subtle playing of the same idea would do.

Secondly it's in the character of Brad's son Troy. Where other films about older teens have them as shuffling zombies who can't look up from a phone and think their parents are idiots, he genuinely loves and engages with his Dad emotionally and it's very refreshing to see.

It was an incredibly low key release that got a token theatrical run before moving to a streaming service so it's impossible to say how successful it was in commercial terms, but it was one of those movies that comes along every handful of years (if you're lucky) that seems aimed directly at you as an individual.

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