Brad’s Status may only be Mike White’s second film as director, but it comes after a long career as screenwriter, and is the work of a master at the height of his craft. It also offers Ben Stiller one of the best performances of his career as Brad Sloan, a Californian husband, father and non-profit professional who takes his son Troy (Austin Abrams) to the East Coast for the weekend to check out some prospective college choices. From the beginning of the film, it’s clear that Brad is in the midst of some kind of identity crisis, although it’s not exactly clear what it entails, or where it stems from, since for all intents and purposes he seems to be doing quite well for himself. Not only does he own his own house, and have a loving wife (Jenna Fischer, in a few brief scenes) and son, but he has dedicated the best part of his life to a career that has integrity and purpose. Therein lies the rub, however, since, as Brad sees it, his commitment to the non-profit sector has ironically given him less of a non-profit profile than his college peers, most of whom have achieved stratospheric levels of fame, wealth, or both, and have been able to bestow through philanthropy what he can only dream about within his modest startup. Of his wider circle of acquaintances, the three that most haunt him are Nick (Mike White), a wildly successful film director, Jason (Luke Wilson), an enormously powerful banker, and Craig (Michael Sheen), a phenomenally prestigious political consultant. While these figures all faded out of Brad’s life years ago, he is still friends with them on Facebook, while their various achievements all appear to hinge on a media saturation and savviness that makes them almost impossible for Brad to ignore.
In fact, while they might work in very different fields – film, banking, politics – this media saturation effectively is what constitutes Brad’s friends’ achievements, with their phenomenal reach and power leaving his modest Facebook and Twitter presence far behind. While Brad is effectively the only character in the film, then, the cameos from White, Sheen and Wilson feel far more expansive than they actually are, since these actors aren’t exactly playing “characters” so much as the omnipresent social media spectres that haunt Brad’s waking and dreaming life. Even the fact of living in Sacramento seems to haunt Brad with its comparative invisibility within American media – “a secondary market surrounded by mediocrities and beta males” – while his inability to further colonise social media produces an overwhelming and oppressive sense of finitude, in which “there’s no more potential…this is it, we’ve plateaued.” Even the “civic” values for which Brad stands, and which might seem inimical to excessive social media exposure, have been well and truly co-opted by the prodigious media presence of his friends, whose wealth has not only allowed them to become philanthropists, but philanthropists of the most performative order, doling out their beneficence theatrically for whatever camera is prepared to record it. As a result, one of Brad’s biggest pieces of advice, given to several people over the course of the film, is to simply make a ton of money and then contribute to non-profits, rather than trying to set up a non-profit in the first place, since, in his experience, this is far more likely to be remunerative, both financially and affectively, rather than commencing with integrity.
As that might suggest, then, Brad’s anxieties seem to represent something like an older mid-life crisis updated for an era of social media. To that end, White, who also wrote the screenplay, opts for a similar style of dialogue to both Enlightened and Beatriz at Dinner. At face value, it can play like minimalism, but as you settle deeper into the film the spaces around the words don’t quite feel as empty or as vacant as they might in a more classically minimal feature. Instead, Brad’s Status suggest that speech and language have been somewhat denuded by the omniscient digital universe, and that the mere presence of social media has infinitely expanded the space around each utterance, carving out a brooding, melancholy prescience that contours and cushions every word. It’s the perfect venue for a character, like Brad, who has reached the ceiling of middle-class aspiration only to realise that it no longer automatically confers status in and of itself, a recognition that is most pointed in and around his odd relationship with his son Troy. I don’t usually put too much stock in character’s names, but watching Brad’s Status I had to wonder whether Troy had been partly named for the allusion to The Iliad, not only because the film is quite classicist in its style and in its use of Ivy League spaces, but because Troy performs something of an covert invasion as well, sneaking up on Brad and absorbing his status before he realises it.
In that respect, the critical moment comes early in the film, when Troy reveals, off-hand, that he has received an interview at Harvard, and that his careers advisor thinks that he has a strong chance of getting into Harvard. In another time and place, this would surely be a boon for Brad, a reflection of his efforts and status as a parent. Amidst the anxious digital milieu of Brad’s Status, however, the situation is far from clear, partly because Brad himself always longed to go to Harvard (or an Ivy League university), but was only able to get into Tufts, a “failure” he more or less equates with the perceived banality of his non-profit career trajectory. On the one hand, Brad sees a certain victory in Troy’s achievement, but on the other hand it fills him with a certain kind of dread, and even a certain resentment at having his own status absorbed in this way. In many ways, these are not new tropes in father-sons films, but what makes Brad’s Status so striking is that Brad never identifies in any wholehearted or visceral way with either option. Far from oscillating between visceral pride or visceral competitiveness (or choosing one and sticking with it), Brad is unable to commit to either joy or resentment for very long without sinking back into a depressive, anhedonic murk, in which it is precisely his inability to define his status through his son – whether by way of him, or against him – that is the real trauma. Once again, it feels as if Brad has reached some kind of ceiling, in which even the most hallowed achievement of middle-class white life – a successful, and publically successful, child – has failed to generate the status, and reciprocal continuity of status, that he only now realises he was striving for.
On the face of it, that sounds like it might be a bit of a precious, tiresome, or even monotonous experience, but White’s craft as writer and director, and Stiller’s craft as actor, turns Brad’s Status into something considerably more profound and yearning than a cursory plot summary might suggest. In part, that’s down to how eloquently Stiller captures the brooding, fixated postures that can congeal and coagulate around social media, along with the huddled, haunted, introspective body language engendered by those who are apparently invulnerable on social media. Whether hunched over his laptop in bed, crouched in front of his phone in the dark, or sunk in the depths of some internal monologue, Brad perpetually exudes the tetchy, harangued, haggard body language of someone who is always trying to elude other people’s statuses on social media – a task that becomes all the more difficult in that that his college friends appear to have conquered every available screen. It’s the same body language that comes from sleep deprivation, partly because Brad’s obsession actually deprives him of a significant amount of sleep, but also because it disrupts his sleeping patterns more widely, with every point of access to a screen seeming to collect the darkest and most sleepless hours of the night around it. As a result, Brad’s Status often appears to unfolding at one remove from regular dialogue, caught up in an oneiric, half-waking dreamscape in which every exchange or conversation is wrapped up in, or forms the starting point for, a moody, melancholy monologue of Brad’s creation: “It wasn’t just fleeting jealousy, it was real pain. Why is it so painful? What is wrong with me?”
Behind the camera, White bolsters that mood by tending to shoot Stiller in fractious close-up, often orchestrating scenes by moving closer and closer to his face, as if the camera were yet another social media platform, scrutinising him and waiting for him to be traumatised by his presence. During these scenes, the film beautifully captures the continual second-guessing that can come with social media, and the sense that no mood is stable or secure once you immerse yourself in social media beyond a certain threshold, with Brad’s oscillations between giddy exuberance and morose melancholy growing more vertiginous and queasy as the film proceeds. No doubt, he uses his son to try and restore his status – as a father, husband, professional – but the problem is that it’s his lack of status that makes it so challenging for him to be a father in the first place, resulting in a deadly spiral whereby the more his son depends upon him and loves him, the more Brad’s crisis escalates and intensifies, until he greets every gesture of love from Troy like a challenge to his fatherhood as much as an affirmation of it. In the process, Brad’s Crisis not only outlines a world in which white fatherhood no longer automatically confers status in and of itself, but in which the mid-life crisis is no longer really available, whether as a form of dramatic self-realisation and reinvention, as occurred in The Heartbreak Kid, or as a form of comic catharsis and rejuvenation, as occurred in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Given how identified Stiller’s late work has been with that particular trope, there’s something peculiarly traumatic about seeing him play a character who tries to summon up the the dramatic or comic valency of a mid-life crisis, but who descends back into bathos each time he seems about to nail the role.
Yet that bathos is also what saves the film, and prevents it ever indulging in its own traumas, making for something of a wryly comic meditation on the mid-life crisis that nevertheless has to pass through all Brad’s agonised efforts to invoke that crisis in order for its deeper and broader sense of comedy to be truly felt. Early in the film, one of Troy’s friends calls out Brad on his privilege, and while everything she says may be true, it doesn’t quite seem to solve the film’s problem either, just because calling out Brad adds to the very sense of tragic misunderstanding she is trying to puncture. Similarly, learning that his high-achieving friends have their own issues doesn’t “demystify” them for Brad in any kind of way, or allow him to recuperate his status in any lasting way, just because that would imply that his status anxiety was a source of pathos in the first place. Instead, White simply takes Brad’s very real register of grief, sorrow and pain – the register of white privilege – and sits with it, never quite puncturing it, but never quite indulging it either. Refusing to elevate white privilege to either an object of dignity or scorn, White instead presents it as a kind of self-defeating absurdity – an absurdity that Brad glimpses, but by definition can never properly articulate.
As a result, the film doesn’t end on any climactic or cathartic note, but more with a gradual deepening and broadening of this wry sense of absurdity. Nowhere is that clearer than in the change in the soundscape, which gradually transitions from Mark Mothersbaugh’s sombient electronic score to Dvorak’s Humoresque, which recurs in one form or another until Brad attends a performance of it in the final scene. It’s the perfect accompaniment to these closing moments, and to the third act as a whole, exuding a mournfulness that is just a little too playful to ever gravitate into proper pathos, along with a rhythmic, repetitive quality that makes even the most painful moments feel somewhat predictable in retrospect, while also subsuming them into a more global and bathetic sense of life simply carrying on. Against that musical backdrop, regaining status isn’t an option, but neither is reveling in the experience of lost status either. Instead, Brad learns to domesticate the lost object of status, and to accept it as an ongoing fact of his life and environment, reflecting that “I have doubts and worry that people look at me and think I’m a failure…and then, the feeling passes.” It may not be result in a particularly terrific feeling, and it may be destined to recur, but the acceptance of that cycle as something inexorable as Dvorak’s rhythms allow Brad to achieve a certain kind of epiphany. In a way, most films about white suburban life, and white suburban fatherhood, have become ways of allaying status anxiety, but Brad’s Status is unique in the dexterity with which it suggests a status that can never be fully restored, and which possibly never existed anyway, all the while refusing to accord that status too much comedy, or too much tragedy, for fear of affirming it too emphatically. The result is a film that is never exactly humorless, and never exactly humorous, but humoresque, and modest by design, telling a story that can only resonate by coming to terms with its own smallness.