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Sunday, October 08, 2017

Brad's Status

Comedic actors by their nature are drawn to doing dramatic roles once in a while, but in my experience, the best examples of this are when the actor or actress finds a role that is essentially a more serious take on their usual comic persona.  This is a big part as to why Ben Stiller is so good in Brad's Status.  This is essentially a more somber take on Stiller's usual character, the hard-luck schmuck who is usually more than a little self-centered and kind of hounded by his own failures in life.  While there are some moments of humor throughout, writer-director Mike White (recovering nicely from his screenplay credit on The Emoji Movie here) gives us a film and a performance from Stiller that is easy to relate to.

The movie is built entirely around that moment everyone goes through (usually around middle age) where they take stock of their life, and how it has stacked up to what they dreamed about when they were an idealistic 20-something in college, as well as how their life compares to the people they were friends with during that same time period.  The night before Stiller's Brad Sloan is set to take his 17-year-old son to Boston for a college campus tour, he can't help but reflect on how everyone he was friends with back in the day have gone on to have interesting or successful lives, while he's living a fairly ordinary suburban existence in Sacramento.  His son Troy (Austin Abrams) is a musical prodigy, and has a good chance at getting into Harvard.  Brad is naturally excited for his son, but he can't help but have visions of his son going on to enormous fame, while he gets left behind, envying him like he does everyone else.  His loving wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) is complacent with the life they have together.  Maybe too complacent, and that's what scares Brad.

Of Brad's former college friends, there is Billy (Jemaine Clement), who is a tech giant who managed to retire at 40, and now lives a life of non-stop sex with two girlfriends on a private beach house in Hawaii.  Nick (played by writer-director Mike White) is now a successful Hollywood filmmaker  with a mansion that is regularly featured in architecture magazines.  Jason (Luke Wilson) married into money, and is now one of the most successful businessmen in America with his own private jet.  But the one who haunts Brad's mind the most is Craig (Michael Sheen), who is a successful author, a frequent political panelist on Cable News, and even lectures at his son's dream school, Harvard.  When Brad is forced to call Craig for a favor to help Troy get a meeting with the Dean as well as a music Professor he admires, it opens a floodgate of personal feelings and resentment.  It gets even worse when he finds out that Nick recently got married, and all of Brad's old group was invited, except for him.

We constantly know what Brad thinks about these people, due to the fact that he narrates and gives an inner-monologue for a good part of the film.  It's a technique that can be risky, but White's screenplay pulls it off, because of how he delves deep into these characters.  We get to see not just Brad's inflated expectations on the people who he once saw as his equal but now views them as being superior in every way, but also how they really turned out.  Sometimes it's not quite what Brad has expected.  But all of this is not heavy-handed or melodramatic.  White has a way of finding honest and relatable characters, so we can see a little bit of ourselves perhaps in these people.  There is no moment of realization on Brad's part where the music suddenly swells.  In fact, the music score by Mark Mothersbaugh is used quite well, and hardly spells out the emotion. 

What we get instead is a brilliantly acted scene where Brad has a conversation with a young musician (Shazi Raja) who is friends with Troy, and studying at Harvard.  As Brad speaks with her at a bar one night, he sees his former self in her, and how much possibility life used to have.  He tries to explain how he got to where he is in life, but she simply gives him a clear observation of Brad's life in general, and what he truly has.  We get the sense that Brad is not ready to hear some of the things she has to say about him.  But, what makes the scene work so beautifully is how White does not treat this as a big dramatic moment.  It's quiet, unassuming, and casual.  Likewise, the scene late in the film where Brad finally sits down for dinner with Craig is equally spectacular in the way it doesn't play out the way we expect. 

Brad's Status is a quietly effective comment on people who wish for more in life than what they have.  In other words, it's a movie that everybody can relate to.  We are always wanting more, and that doesn't make us terrible or selfish people.  Indeed, it's human nature.  But this isn't a moralistic story about a man learning a lesson.  Maybe these experiences will change Brad, maybe they won't.  The film intentionally leaves on a note that doesn't make a lot of things certain for him.  He's faced some hard truths during this college visitation, but we don't know if he will take all of the advice and observations he goes through and receives to heart.  And while it does have a deadpan humor to itself, it never loses sight on the honest nature of the topic.

It's almost a crime that this movie is being buried in a limited release, as I think just about anyone who watches it will take something away from it.  It not only contains the best work Ben Stiller has done in ages, but it tells an important and emotional story without the need for forced sentiment or phony resolutions.  Brad's Status is a somber but kind of beautiful little film.

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