[NOTE: This is a repost of our review from TIFF; Brad’s Status will be released in select theaters this Friday, September 15]
For many years writer and occasional director Mike White has been one of the most intriguing voices in La-La-land. He’s written mainstream comedies (School Of Rock), indie oddities (Chuck & Buck), cult TV series (HBO’s Enlightened), and even participated on The Amazing Race. The one thing connecting all of White’s work (well, aside from the reality show appearance anyways), is a compassion for the neurotic and a sense of observational humour that mixes freely with bitter drama. He has a distinct voice that can shine through any project, which is rare from a screenwriter especially one who gleefully jumps through so many styles, genres, and media.
Brad’s Status is only the second film that White has directed and it feels like a breakthrough of sorts. A hysterical comedy with such embarrassingly accurate insights and rich emotional depth that it stings deeper than most dramas. It’s the sort of thing that Woody Allen used to do rather well before descending into monotonous repetition, suggesting the Mike White might have it in him to take the Woodster’s mantle if he so pleases. He’s even quite an amusing and potent screen presence as an actor. So, it’s a reasonable comparison.
Not that White stars in this one though. Nope that would be Ben Stiller who plays the titular Brad. On the surface, Brad has a pretty great life. He runs his own non-profit. He has a loving wife (Jenna Fischer) and their musically gifted son (Austin Abrams) is on a strong enough path of success that Brad’s about to take him to tour Harvard. Yet, Brad is miserable. Not necessarily because of anything specific in his own life (you know, other than the routine humiliations of human existence), but because Brad spends so much time obsessing over the social media feeds of his old college friends (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, and Mike White himself). They’re all far more superficially wealthy and successful and know how to flaunt it. That’s enough to make Brad doubt everything about his life during the father-son college visit trip. Call it a midlife crisis or pathetic if you will, but there’s no denying that White’s vividly tapped in to an illness that effects everyone with an internet presence.
The film is filled with voiceover, yet never as a lazy crutch. It allows White to play the endless track of self-doubt and neurosis that fills the lonely moments and silences of us all. It can be excruciating at times and Stiller always keeps the thoughts playing across his face. The guy has done the burned out sad sack routine before, but this feels a bit more visceral than usual because White’s words cuts so deep. That makes for an almost embarrassingly open viewing experience that would be tough to watch if White’s script weren’t so hilarious in its observations. This is cringe comedy at it’s finest, the type that makes you feel ill with identification and want to leave the room between almost reluctant giggles. Brad’s active fantasy life allows for slightly more broad comedy at times, which gives White a chance to stretch his visual chops as a director and lets Clement, Sheen, and Wilson do some goofy comedic acting between their far more real scenes.
The film is certainly hilarious, just executed with razor sharp comedic observations. Michael Sheen is particularly strong as a narcissistic political commentator and author, so blissfully unaware of his own awkward arrogance despite being insightful about the rest of the world. There’s a bitter truth to that performance and White’s script that the film never shies away from. There’s an ugliness to the narcissism on display, yet the movie never judges. Instead there’s great empathy for all the personal and social media-induced pain. It’s a common problem though few are willing to admit such things (if they’re even aware of them) and White cuts through it all like a filmmaker who knows this material with uncomfortable intimacy. Sure, some might argue that all this issues are very first world and specific, a little too naval gazing to be worthy of a movie. Yet, the filmmaker cleverly acknowledges and addresses that potential criticism in ways to clever to reveal here.
Brad’s Status is one of those comedies that’ll sting deeply for viewers who find too much of themselves in it and that’ll be true of many. Mike White tapped into something special here and his entire cast clearly know it and commit to it all with honesty and hilarity. It’s the sort of thing that’ll have you giggle for so long, you’ll barely notice how moved you are until it’s too late. It feels like a special movie and yet at the same time is easy to overpraise since the strengths are subtle. Expectations set too high could kill the deliberately small and personal picture about a particular brand of 21st century illness. Just expect to laugh, because you will. Then the ideas and emotions will kick in when you least expect. There’s quite a bit to chew on here, especially for a Ben Stiller comedy. Hopefully, people notice. Lord knows Mike White is long overdue for respect and reappraisal and Brad’s Status just might be his masterpiece.