For most of cinematic history, rich white male filmmakers who wanted to explore their discontents onscreen simply did so, without considering whether such a tale might constitute little more than highly privileged whining. Some still forge blithely ahead, of course, but others are beginning to wrestle with the problem. The simplest, most obvious solution—hey, just don’t make that sort of movie to begin with—seems overly stifling; if nothing else, such self-abnegation violates the bedrock dictum of “write what you know.” With Brad’s Status, Mike White (best known for writing School Of Rock and creating Enlightened) has chosen an alternate route: Make the movie you want to, but sheepishly apologize for its existence—not via interviews or post-screening Q&As, but within the context of the film itself. It’s a ploy that could potentially come across as passive-aggressive (especially with Ben Stiller, the king of passive aggression, playing the title role), but instead plays endearingly dorky, like prefacing a request for someone’s phone number with a tortured speech about how unworthy you are of their notice.
For Brad Sloan (Stiller), feeling unworthy of people’s notice has become, at age 47, something of a full-time neurosis. Nothing he’s accomplished seems good enough—his relationship with his wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), has settled into supportive contentment in place of passion; he runs a nonprofit organization that leaves the world a better place but proves a boring topic of conversation at dinner parties; and he lives in Sacramento, referred to in Greta Gerwig’s new movie Lady Bird and elsewhere as “the Midwest of California.” In particular, Brad spends a lot of time mentally comparing himself to his old college buddies (cameos by Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement, Michael Sheen, and White himself), who are all famous, obscenely wealthy, or both. A trip to Boston scouting colleges with his son, Troy (Austin Abrams), provides unexpected opportunities to take stock of himself.
White attempts to walk a tricky tightrope with Brad’s Status, acknowledging that Brad is stressed out about a life that many people would envy, while simultaneously honoring the very real anxiety that such privileged problems can inspire. The film’s efforts at perspective are often clumsy—there’s wall-to-wall voice-over narration spelling out Brad’s every tortured thought and supporting characters (most notably a Harvard student played by Shazi Raja) whose sole function is to lecture Brad about how cluelessly lucky he is. Happily, though, White altogether avoids the sourness that marred his directorial debut, 2007’s Year Of The Dog, and he’s made a real find in Abrams, who counters Stiller’s raw neediness with hilarious disaffection. The generational interplay between father and son is sharp enough to convey the desired point with admirable subtlety, which makes the ass-covering elsewhere seem not just didactic but redundant. Cut White some slack, though. These days, it’s not easy being white. Or, rather, it is easy, and thus it isn’t. Status: It’s complicated.