“This is not where I thought I’d be. It’s not the life I imagined.”
At first glance this film looks like another depiction of a privileged life that’s been belittled by a mind overrun with first-world problems. It’ll be quite easy for some to come to a snap decision that its intentions are jaded and that its open sincerity should be viewed as glib self-righteousness. I, for one, see Brad’s Status quite differently. I saw a film which revolves around a modern-day everyman whose discontent with his teetering middle-class status leads his brain into the far corners of duress. This man contemplates his marriage with an uplifting and content spouse, as well as how to rear an ambitious and talented child he loves and is distressed by. Most scenes revolve around life’s extreme ups and downs, the void between age and youth, and the lapse in logical concerns suppressed by illogical fears. Brad’s Status may be little a picture, but it’s a piercing study of comparative anxiety that looks deep into the abyss of what it means to live without being under the influence of envy or the perceptions of parity.
At 47, Brad’s (Ben Stiller) too old to be at the crossroads of a typical twenty-something. Instead he feels stuck, waiting deep in traffic at a railroad track, an endless train coasting along, the crossing arms nowhere close to lifting. On the opposite side he envisions a life full of purpose and recognition. And so he idly sits and waits, descending into an imagination station and shipping off wherever his thoughts might take him. There’s no time to fully bask in these mirages, though. Melanie (Jenna Fischer) has a work conference to attend, and since Brad manages his own non-profit small business, he’s the parent with the most availability to accompany their son Troy (Austin Abrams) on his big Harvard visit. Troy’s not nonchalant because he’s careless, but more as an attempt to be the relaxing serum necessary to soothe his Dad’s worrywarts. They approach this growing glacial rift with shared hearts yet vastly different methods of expression.
Former classmates/friends have gone onto supposedly great things. Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen) guest lectures and is a broadcast news talking head. Nick Pascale (Mike White) directs big movies and lives the Hollywood high-life. Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson) manages a hedge fund. Billy Wearslter (Jemaine Clement) hit it rich young and retired to Hawaii. As Brad competes with the trajectory of his life against his friends, Teddy Roosevelt’s quote, “comparison is the thief of joy” – while not always true – really applies to his inner deterioration. Plenty of Ben Stiller’s movies are led by him as an aging man who doesn’t really want to grow up, but Mike White’s brilliant writing/directing in Brad’s Status allows Stiller to restrain his typical outbursts through pensive gazes and the calm narration work implemented from beginning to end. The combo platter of Stiller’s great dramatic work and Austin Abrams’ confident performance as Troy is an experience worth seeking out.
Brad’s Status is a film full of so much emotional vacancy that you can practically picture the titular character logging into Facebook and reading that erasable text, “What’s on your mind, Brad?” with an uncomfortable amount of uncertainty and displacement. He has nothing to say and has no reason to be unhappy besides the fact that he overthinks himself to the point of inaction. As someone who’s had to learn how to manage a great deal of anxiety myself, I can assure you that Brad’s apprehension comes from a place of false reality, like an arid desert that’s miles upon miles of quicksand. No matter what he does or thinks, there’s always an inner conflict waiting to swallow him whole. The turning point for Brad’s discontent arrives in the way that some of life’s most revealing moments often do – a little lapse in time where the unconscious guides us without planning or consternation. Tears puddle in Brad’s eyes while he holds Troy’s hand and they listen to a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s “Humoresque,” an inspired and perfect companion piece for this film’s swells of humorous ups and fraught downs. It’s one of the best scenes I’ve come across this year.
More often than not, Brad’s Status reminded me of two things: a more contemporary take on the spiritual awakening in It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as the angst of the short-lived 90’s series My So-Called Life. Troy basically plays the Angel Clarence, leading his father and George Bailey stand-in Brad on a whirlwind tour not in a world where Brad doesn’t exist at all, but in one where a piece of him – his amazing son – is to be removed from the safety of the familial bubble. Brad wants all of the things George Bailey initially sought out. A better home. More money. To escape from the vice grips of reality. They both envy financial success of old friends and feel as if the world has passed them by. Both men learn that these things aren’t always attainable, let alone within reach. And then Brad’s Status almost ends without a crescendo, allowing us to envision what’s to come rather than dwelling on what just happened. Brad’s final words might as well echo those of George Bailey pleading with the Lord on that snowy Bedford Falls bridge; “I wanna live again. I wanna live again! I wanna live again…Please God, let me live again.” A statement like that requires humility and enlightenment and a renewed belief in the value of existence. Brad’s Status doesn’t want to teach us how we should live again, but briefly instructs as to why we should try. It’s a painful film. It’s a an honest film. And it’s reminder to all of us that we should never afford a hard world the opportunity to rob us of idealism or happiness or hope.
“It’s stupid to compare lives.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5