A privileged white man’s midlife crisis doesn’t, in 2017, sound like a particularly auspicious premise for a profound meditation on what really matters in life—yet that’s exactly what Ben Stiller and writer-director Mike White deliver in Brad’s Status. Stiller stars as Brad, a 40-something dad taking his son Troy (Austin Adams) on a college visit to Harvard, where he plans to apply. The trip becomes the occasion for a serious bout of status anxiety, as Brad reflects on his life choices compared to those of his wildly successful classmates: a disgustingly rich hedge fund manager (Luke Wilson), a retired CEO (Jermaine Clement), a bestselling author and TV pundit (Michael Sheen), and a Hollywood bigwig (White, in an unspeaking cameo).
Brad’s jealousy of these classmates, and his anxieties about the disappointments of his own life, ultimately express themselves in Brad’s determination that Troy will get into Harvard. But when something goes wrong on the campus visit, Brad is forced to call his old buddies to get to Craig Fischer (that’s the friend played by Sheen), a sometimes-lecturer at Harvard, who might be able to get Troy a face-to-face with someone who matters in admissions.
Throughout, the film traps us with Brad: there’s no scene where we’re not with him, and sometimes we’re literally in his head via a running voiceover of his obsessive internal monologue, or fantasies about his or his son’s future successes or humiliations. Brad is a problematic main character, and viewers who prefer uncomplicatedly likable leads will find it hard to warm to the film. Brad schemes, he obsesses, he pushes and sometimes browbeats his son. He’s arrogant and petty and wheedling. He somehow finds a way to make every situation about himself.
Yet White’s trick in Brad’s Status—and Stiller’s—is to present Brad’s unforgivingly while still not sacrificing empathy. You cringe when Brad behaves badly, want to yell at him when he’s obsessing over things that don’t matter—yet you also, hopefully, understand why he’s behaving the way he is, empathize with the way that this kind of American status anxiety can drive a person to think and behave in unhelpful, ungenerous ways.
In part, the film accomplishes this by having characters literally tell him what’s wrong with him, in particular a college student who calls him out on the white and male privilege at work in his midlife crisis. “You’re 50 years old and you still think the world was made for you.” (Brad’s response: “I’m 47.”) It’s also due in no small part to Stiller’s performance, which is funny, dark, and likable exactly when it needs to be—revealing the absurd self-regard and insecurity in Brad’s worse behavior, then turning around to appeal for our empathy again in the next scene, or next moment.
The movie is also clearly a product of Mike White’s unique creative point of view, bearing some resemblances to his criminally underappreciated HBO series Enlightened, with which Brad’s Status could serve as a sort of companion piece. Both narratives concern a character struggling with midlife crises; both feature leads whose behavior can be wince-inducing while never sacrificing empathy and tenderness; both become, ultimately, deeply spiritual inquisitions into the true meaning of life.
Yes, I said spiritual—this Ben Stiller dramedy really does go that deep. At times the film is almost like a religious fable: the not-so-rich man who went searching for the meaning of life. I won’t tell you what he finds; in a film like this, Brad’s final insights would practically be spoilers. I can say that I found the film’s final moments to be surprisingly profound, quietly devastating—and, like the film, almost perfect.-Andrew DeYoung