Brad’s (Ben Stiller) son is about to embark on college. It’s the type of auspicious life marker to make anyone look back and question the journey they’ve taken thus far. Has Brad done enough? Lived up to the potential he felt he possessed? Or was he passed by? All of his old Tufts friends are rich, famous, successful, and/or happy—pure happiness unencumbered by the seemingly trivial struggles Brad faces daily. He isn’t poor, though. Nor destitute. If anything he’s on the cusp of breaking past middle class with loving wife (Jenna Fischer’s Melanie) and son (Austin Abrams’ Troy). We therefore can’t feasibly pity him and this film about his white privileged crisis knows it. Only one person could ever feel sorry for him: himself. And of course he does.
Welcome to Brad’s Status, the latest from writer/director Mike White. It plays like an extended monologue wherein Brad laments his existence, fantasizes about what could have been (and could still be), and flip flops between admiration and jealousy towards the son for whom he should be devoting this entire excursion from Sacramento to Boston. He’s projecting and spiraling at once; over-compensating for things he doesn’t need to feel responsible for just as he ignores what he should. The incredulity and shock on his face when Troy says Harvard is his number one choice and that his guidance counselor believes he’ll have no trouble getting in is unfathomable. Brad asks himself, “Why didn’t I know?” The correct query is why he didn’t care to find out until now.
It’s very difficult to feel anything for Brad besides absolute contempt as a result. The things that escape his mouth can be funny—like asking his wife how much she estimates her parents’ home is worth since they’ll be dead soon—but nothing ever goes deeper than surface anxieties steeped in unjustified fears. The film becomes so self-aware that it’s tough to discern whether we should take what’s happening seriously or not. I thought the latter at first considering the tone of Brad’s imaginings of friends (played with embellished enthusiasm by Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, and White himself). It’s so absurd that we must laugh at Brad for his delusions. But then someone calls him out. The playful music stops and Stiller’s pride is replaced by pain. Yet I refused to feel bad.
Instead I wanted to rise and give Harvard junior Ananya (Shazi Raja) a round of applause for calling him on his bullshit. This should have been a turnaround—when Brad wakes to the realization his life is great as is. He owns a non-profit for God’s sake. He should understand the plight of the less fortunate and know the context of his place within a world reaching further than his circle of Facebook friends who don’t invite him to weddings anymore. Instead it’s just more self-pity. More woe is me rhetoric moving from endearing to annoying fast. To draw Brad as self-deluded as he proves is to set him up for a fall. Having his son acknowledge his recent schizophrenic personality provides his guide for getting back up. But White instead chooses to make Brad’s epiphany solely Brad’s doing as well.
It’s absolutely intentional and yet so tonally out-of-place since it ensures Brad’s only avenue for redemption is through the exact broken psychological system that renders him irredeemable. So where does that leave us? Personally, it left me hating him. I hated how he acts with his son. I hated that everything he does is motivated by selfish insecurity. I hated that he’s perpetually smug in the worst possible way: genuinely believing he’s not. The last one is wholly unforgivable because it helps to render the deluded sociopaths that used to be his friends human and empathetic. The scene where Brad finally confronts Craig (Sheen)—a wealthy, respected intellectual who ignored a request to invest in his start-up—turns his chance at self-respect into petty vindictiveness.
Even worse is that White shoots it like we should applaud this confrontation gone wrong as a victory. It’s the last nail of a coffin wherein the truth behind Brad’s envious delusions of those he yearns to think believe they’re better than him is finally revealed. Suddenly it’s him that might be the best of everyone after all. Mr. Down-on-his-luck Bradley Do-Good is the guy who stuck to his principles and never sold out despite wasting 90 minutes telling us he should have. We spend an entire movie listening to him ramble on and on about a “pathetic” life we would kill to have and ultimately despise him entirely. He should be who we champion because he’s loved and does things for the right reasons, but we can’t because we only experience this trip.
He’s an asshole at the start and remains one throughout. Brad thinks all these horrible things, takes his anger out on the two people who love him implicitly and forever, and is simply allowed to go on living as an ungrateful s.o.b. who will go through the exact same crisis of identity a year later. I have to believe White is messing with us—showing this character as a deplorable in order to comment on the fact that all white entitled men with good educations are deplorable no matter if they’re whores, crooks, or idealists—but I can’t see it. Some wires got crossed because it felt to me like the message was that these men have it tough and we should respect their struggle. No thanks.
It’s too bad because Stiller excels in this type of role. From Greenberg to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—this is literally his wheelhouse and he knocks it out of the park again. Whereas those were endearing characters we could fight for, however, Brad is a guy for whom you cannot fathom actually having anyone in his life that doesn’t hate his guts. No matter how funny his meanness gets or how great it is to laugh at his utter cluelessness towards problems a man in his line of work should be keenly aware of, the culmination of everything adds up to zero. He needs to be punched in the face or have a drink thrown at him, because anyone who doesn’t do so automatically condones his right to be everything that’s wrong with humanity.
Brad’s Status premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens on September 15.