Review: Ben Stiller and his mid-life crisis makes Brad’s Status an infuriating waste
- Credit: Vertigo Releasing/Jonathan Wenk
The central character of writer-director Mike White's navel-gazing comedy drama is a narcissist and neurotic, whose deep-seated feelings of inadequacy are exacerbated by social media envy.
Brad's Status (15)
At the beginning, Brad (Ben Stiller), who has rashly been given possession of a voiceover for the duration, tells us he's depressed because he's not as successful as he wanted to be: and then he tells us again, and again and again. He feels like a failure, but a very 21st-century form of failure.
He runs a not-for-profit organisation, his wife (Jenna Fischer) has a good job and their musical prodigy son (Austin Abrams) has his choice of universities: but because all of his old college friends (Luke Wilson, Jermaine Clement, Michael Sheen and Mike White) have gone on to be celebrity millionaires he can't be contented. He wonders when one of their parents will die and leave them some money and frets about his life in Sacramento 'surrounded by mediocrity and beta males'.
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Well boo hoo hoo. The film is rooted in a really potent idea: that today just being successful is to be a failure in a culture that values billions not millions, celebrity not achievement.
But it is explored in the dullest form possible – the middle-aged man's lament. At one point savvy Harvard student activist (Shazi Raja) calls Brad out on his self-pitying whinging, but neither he nor the film can bring itself to snap out of their funk.
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Which is frustrating because much of the film is subtle and perceptive and it wouldn't have taken much for it to be something worthwhile.
The narrative is him and his son's trip to look around a range of prestigious, East coast universities (Harvard, Tuft). That this musical prodigy mostly communicates in grunts and mumbles – he puts so little effort into this, like, speaking, and, uh, talking, he's like a ventriloquist who can't summon the energy to throw his voice – may be one of the film's subtler jests.
The term comedy-drama is marvellously vague, covering any point on the dial between the two. In this film, the humorous moments feel like reluctant concessions, as if they've been crow-barred in to qualify for a tax break. They are usually its brightest moments but once they've been gotten through, the voiceover and the oppressively bleak music sweep back in to restore the mood of self-pity.
Ben Stiller and his mid-life crisis: this isn't as big a folly as his Walter Mitty film, but it is an infuriating waste.