Mike White’s Brad’s Status is a Noah Baumbach movie where everybody is stupid. Instead of dealing with the borderline perverse anxieties of upper middle-class white intellectuals, we have a story about an upper middle-class man tethered to his own mediocrity. The problem is, the charm of Baumbach’s best work comes from the fact that his smarmy characters have at least some excuse for being disconnected from society. Meanwhile, Brad (Ben Stiller) actually has everything he needs from society from jump street. Yes, I know that’s the point, but that doesn’t really excuse the fact that this story is utterly unneeded in a world where stories of genuine struggles are begging to be told.
A vast majority of this film centers around Brad’s internal monologue, set to an odd violin theme that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie. He agonizes over his college friends’ massive successes, which is odd in and of itself. What are the chances that one group of friends has a future white house press secretary (Michael Sheen), a multi-millionaire retired tech company owner (Jermaine Clement) and a perversely rich hedge fund manager (Luke Wilson). If the black sheep of this group runs a successful non-profit and lives in a beautiful house with an adoring wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and musical savant son on his way to Harvard, we’re really doing ok.
For the first half of the movie, I was convinced that White’s script might be some kind of really straight-faced joke. Surely, nobody can be this disconnected from the current social climate to think that the general audience wouldn’t emphatically reject this story. I couldn’t help but giggle as Brad complained and complained, practically sucking the air out of the room. Thank God for Stiller, who does as good a job as anybody could in anchoring this material. While he’s primarily known as a goofy comedian, he’s always been at his best in more grounded roles like this one. For all of Brad’s endless indulgences, we completely buy into the complex relationship he has with his son Troy, who’s anxious yet sweet demeanor is brought to life by the highly promising Austin Abrams.
The film gets a lot stronger in the second half when other characters start to call Brad out on his idiotic dissatisfaction. White starts to peal back the layers of these friends who Brad admires but vindictively envies, which leads to some genuinely wrenching scenes. Unfortunately, the same treatment is never given to Melanie, who remains a two dimensional smiling wife for the entire film without ever getting her moment to have layers of her own.
However, even within this second half, there’s an unfortunate detour involving a student named Ananya (Shazi Raja) who Brad befriends and vents too. The conceit of this sequence is fairly compelling, with Ananya ultimately serving as the first person to give Brad a genuine talking to about just how empty his head really us. White just can’t help taking things into creepy territory though, with a phenomenally uncomfortable sequence where Brad fantasizes about running away with Ananya and her friend. We see the fifty-one year old Stiller getting hugged and kissed by these two young women who seem to be holding in vomit. It’s one of the most difficult to watch sequences of 2017.
White is clearly a keen observer of human behavior but he chose the wrong subject. I don’t know if he’s perhaps projecting himself onto Brad in some ways, he very well might be, as the film feels very personal. That doesn’t make it any less hard to watch at times, and not in the ways that best cringe comedies are. The moments of Brad’s Status that shine come when White allows the film to be more aware of how inane Brad’s problems really are but it never really lands, as the film is ultimately a little too sympathetic towards him. It is a great showcase for Stiller though, who will hopefully be able to really shine in his role in an actual Noah Baumbach film next month. For now, though, Brad’s relationship status with his audience will likely be single.