There’s no shortage of movies that follow around a white guy in the throes of a mid-life crisis. A vast majority of these movies give the audience no reason to care for this type of character other than the fact that he’s the lead, hoping that there will be enough people who identify with the ennui of the central character. Writer-director Mike White doesn’t do that with his latest film, Brad’s Status. Through the thoughts of its main character, White examines the nature of white male privilege as the main character is incapable of seeing just how nice his life truly is.
Brad (Ben Stiller) is living an upper middle class existence in Sacramenton, California with his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and their teenage son Troy (Austin Abrams). In his nice, two-story home Brad has trouble sleeping when his mind wanders to the greater successes of his college friends and how their financial success compares to his own. On a trip to Boston with his son to check out potential colleges, Brad loses himself often in his thoughts and his mind always goes back to those lives of his college friends and how imagine their success has left them without want. Brad’s inability to leave his own head and actually look around him to observe just how well he lives leaves him extremely isolated and incapable making a connection with those around him, including his talented son.
One thing that’s key to making Brad’s Status work is the fact that Mike White never asks the audience to actually side with its main character. If anything, you just want to slap Brad when his thoughts runaway and scream in his face: “You’re life is perfectly fine, you idiot!” To think that Mike White and Brad’s Status is somehow endorsing the viewpoint of its main character is a willful misreading of the film and its story, and ignores the fact that the character is confronted on his bullshit by a young woman (Shazi Raja) who calls him out on his bullshit.
More importantly, Brad’s malaise is defined by the fact that he’s operating under assumptions of his friends based on incomplete information, anecdotes that fuel his jealous imagination. He assumes that Billy (Jemaine Clement) is living a life of unadulterated leisure in a beachside paradise based on a single phone conversation; he assumes that professional success for Nick (Mike White) means he’s free from sorrow because he saw him in Architectural Digest; he assumes that Jason (Luke Wilson) doesn’t have a care in the world because of his wealth, and that his kids are likely spoiled for that reason as well based on Instagram posts; and he’s assumed that he’s always been in a form of competition with Craig (Michael Sheen), and resents the success of the author and political operative who constantly appears on television. There’s just one snag, though: their lives aren’t what he imagines them to be. Each success brings forth new complications and the thoughts that take Brad out of the moment prevent him from seeing anything of value in his own life. Brad believes that his old friends don’t invite him to social events due to his lacking success when it’s in fact his inability to form connections because of his inability to escape his thoughts of jealousy that are deeply rooted in entitlement and privilege.
Brad’s Status is a smart, thoughtful examination of privilege that doesn’t endorse the viewpoint of Stiller’s disaffected character. It’s a sharp blend of comedy and drama, though the comedy is often very subtle and amplified by the phenomenal performance of Ben Stiller, who slyly underplays every aspect of Brad. Much like he did with his HBO series Enlightened, Mike White takes us deep into the psyche of a wounded individual who can’t see the effects of their actions on those around him. At each and every turn, Brad takes actions that only heighten his grievances with a world he feels has passed him by except it hasn’t. Only in America could a man live an upper middle class existence and still feel like he’s been shut out, that he’s a victim of an unjust system.