Directed by: Mike White
Premise: A father (Ben Stiller) accompanies his son (Austin Abrams) on a visit to elite east coast universities where he attended school. The father is plunged into a crisis as he accounts for his age and the unfulfilled expectations of his life.
What Works: Over the course of his career, Ben Stiller has specialized in playing likably neurotic and uncool characters. In films as varied as Meet the Parents and Greenberg and Night at the Museum, Stiller played beta males who were dwarfed by the masculinity around them. Stiller has traded on this theme throughout his career to varied effect but 2017’s Brad Status is one of the best uses of his shtick and it features one of Stiller’s best performances. Cast in the title role, Stiller plays a middle aged Harvard alumnus who runs a nonprofit and is just getting by financially. His son is invited to several east coast universities for a screening interview. Stiller’s character revisits the stomping grounds of his youth and experiences a personal crisis as he devalues his own achievements and yearns for the fame and success of his college friends who have gone on to impressive careers in business, politics, and media. One of the impressive aspects of Brad’s Status is the way it starts on familiar storytelling premises and then goes in unexpected directions. Brad is a malcontent suburbanite and the film is poised to be another midlife crisis story about a privileged white male moping about the fact that he’s not more privileged. That could get obnoxious but the filmmakers call out Stiller’s character on his own self-absorption. However, the movie doesn’t discount his feelings either and Brad’s Status has an appropriate amount of empathy for the character’s restlessness. The film also begins as a fairly standard father-son story in which the parent and child learn from each other. There is a bit more to Brad’s Status than that and the filmmakers evade some of the stock scenarios and sentimentality of a father-son story. The movie also gets at what college represents. Higher education is many things but one of them is a place in which young people enjoy adulthood while sheltered from the realities and banalities of adult life. For older viewers, Brad’s Status taps into our nostalgia for that period in our lives but from the perspective of a character who hasn’t lived up to the vague dreams of youth. The movie approaches that tension in a way that’s thought provoking.
What Doesn’t: Brad’s Status is about a man’s regard for himself as measured against the university he attended. There is an unspoken and largely uninterrogated assumption here about the value of higher education and the prestige of elite schools. America’s east coast universities have a cultural cachet that the filmmakers never really question even though the film sets them up to do that. Harvard and the like have produced many influential people but not all that influence has been positive and the success that many students achieve after graduation may have less to do with their diploma and more to do with their social rank and family connections. The scenario of Brad’s Status suggests exactly that but the filmmakers never connect the dots.
DVD extras: Featurettes.
Bottom Line: Brad’s Status combines the road trip narrative and the father-son story with the going-off-to-college premise and the midlife crisis narrative and shapes them into something provocative. It’s an interesting and entertaining mix of elements anchored by one of Ben Stiller’s best performances.
Episode: #703 (June 17, 2018)