It’s probably not accurate to say that the only films Ben Stiller makes revolve around mid-life crises. I mean, Zoolander 2 came out just last year. Sorry, I know we’re all trying to forget about that one.
Still, it feels wearingly familiar to see Ben Stiller in Brad’s Status, a film about a man feeling inadequate about his achievements as he gets ready to send his son off to college. Written and directed by Mike White, the films feels grating at best and boring at worst.
As Brad’s son, Troy (Austin Abrams), gets ready to tour colleges, Brad can’t help but contrast his son’s seemingly-limitless potential with his own mediocre life. He has trouble sleeping next to his pretty-enough, do-gooder wife (Jenna Fischer) while he thinks about how successful his other college friends have become. There’s Craig (Michael Sheen), a famous political commentator plastered on book covers and televisions. There’s Billy (Jermaine Clement), a tech mogul who sold off his company and retired to a private island. There’s Jason (Luke Wilson), a big finance guy with all the luxury money can buy, and there’s Nick (Mike White), a popular and successful Hollywood director.
If nothing else, White can be commended for so openly exposing the ugliness of jealousy. Brad’s preoccupation with himself leaves him utterly disconnected from his son and wife, even as his wife tells him to live in the present before he leaves on this father-son trip. Thanks to voiceovers, we get to live inside Brad’s head with him, and it’s a scary and revolting place. Brad is convinced that everyone has it easier than him and that he’s an utter failure. Y’know, as he explores Ivy League colleges with his talented son while his beautiful and successful wife stays home in their upper middle class residence.
You’re not supposed to feel for Brad. You’re supposed to be affronted by it while confronting that some men do actually feel this way. It’s a complete breath of fresh air when Troy’s friend, Ananya, confronts a kid-less Brad in a bar. She patiently lets him talk her ear off (while he fantasizes about running away to a private island with a bikini-clad Ananya, someone his son’s age), until she finally tells him that these are incredibly privileged problems and to get the heck over it. I wanted to stand up and applaud.
The younger people in the film are, by far, its most enjoyable element. In addition to Ananya (Shazi Raja), Austin Abrams nails the fumbly, awkward, yet self-assured dynamic of the teenage Troy, excited by the college whirlwind but clearly trying to not appear too excited.
Brad’s Status is infuriating and centers on a man learning lessons that should’ve sunk in about 20 years prior. Perhaps that was White’s point, that these crises are more eye-roll than serious emotional quandary. I can only hope we weren’t meant to take Brad’s immature tantrums seriously.