PLOT: By all accounts, Brad (Ben Stiller) is a successful guy. He lives a comfortably middle class existence with a wife (Jenna Fischer) who loves him, and a smart son (Austin Abrams) with a bright future ahead of him. But, he’s unable to shake the feeling of unrealized potential, especially compared to his college friends (Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Mike White & Jemaine Clement), a feeling that comes to a head when he takes his son on a college scouting trip to Boston.
REVIEW: Your enjoyment of BRAD’S STATUS will depend on how much you mind listening to comfortable people whining about their great lives. It’s well-worn territory that Woody Allen’s made a brilliant career out of, with director Mike White (THE GOOD GIRL) bringing his own perspective to the fore. Middle class ennui could have made this intolerable, were it not for the fact that White, from the outset, makes it clear that he agrees with us – Brad is privileged and shouldn’t complain. More of an exploration of this sense of entitlement than some Capra-like tale of a man learning to love what he has, BRAD’S STATUS is smartly written, directed and acted.
Ben Stiller has a particularly strong role, with his neurotic persona being deconstructed in a knowing way. What’s important though, is that through it all you always like Brad. He’s whiny, but never horrible to those around him, with us getting the sense that underneath it all, he does know that he’s lucky – it’s just that he wants more. Luckily, his dissatisfaction is kept mostly internal after the opening scene, where he whines to his wife about money and she basically tells him to shut up (in a sweet way).
Stiller’s performance, which is still funny but toned-down from his purely comedic vehicles, is well-complimented by newcomer Austin Abrams as his son. A pianist who’s virtually guaranteed a position at Harvard thanks to his grades and skill, what’s interesting is how aware he is of his own privilege, being the child of parents who loved and nurtured him. He’s the opposite of the whiny teens we so often see in movies like this, and he’s arguably more mature than his dad, although also not one to lord it over him. It’s a subtle, nuanced turn by him that should help him breakout pretty quickly (it even has some modest awards buzz out of TIFF).
By contrast, Brad’s friends are more caricatures, although this can be defended by the fact that we’re seeing more Brad’s view of them than what they’re actually like. Jemaine Clement seems like a typical man-child party boy, but we only see him in Brad’s idea of his life, ditto Mike White as his flamboyantly gay director pal, or Luke Wilson as a high flying financier – although he has one good scene that suggests his life may be a house of cards ready to collapse.
The most prominent pal is played by Michael Sheen, as his college nemesis turned political pundit, with the prospect of a climatic dinner being the thing helps send Brad off the deep end. Sheen plays a creep pretty well, but there’s enough going on behind the eyes to make us feel he’s fronting a bit, and maybe not quite the douche Brad thinks he is.
Running a pretty lean 100 minutes, BRAD’S STATUS, while maybe definable as a drama, never gets too heavy, and stays witty and relatively funny throughout, even if it stops short of encouraging actual belly laughs. Even if Brad’s whiny, he’s not an unpleasant guy to spent a movie with, and it ranks as one of Stiller’s better recent films.