Written and directed by Mike White, Brad’s Status joins a grand tradition of films about Depressed Dads Who Dream™. True to the genre, it stars Ben Stiller as its dad, Brad, and fits snugly into the Stiller oeuvre, right between Greenberg and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Brad isn’t quite as misanthropic as Greenberg, nor as creative as Walter Mitty. His dreams are slightly paranoid, but largely grounded (no ice climbing for this dude, even in his dreams). Mostly, status-obsessed Brad fantasizes about his wealthier college friends (played by Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Mike White, and Luke Wilson), and how much more fun and fulfillment they’re having without him.
But White has a troubled relationship with his protagonist, in that he can’t quite decide whether Brad is a psychotic to be explored or an everyman to be redeemed. Brad’s neuroses are heightened beyond the realm of day-to-day interaction, but not quite enough to be lurid. And so Brad’s Status falls just short of fascinating character study and lands in the realm of portrait of a guy you’d rather not hang with.
Brad Sloan lives in Sacramento with his wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), who he wakes up in the middle of the night in the first scene, asking her panicked questions about when she thinks her parents might die. They’re locked into their comfortable middle class lives, see (he runs a non-profit, she works for the government) and pretty much their only hope of a sudden change in status (nudge nudge) is an inheritance. That Brad would dare go there is clever and reasonably funny in a Seinfeldian, our-worst-human-impulses-spoken-aloud kind of way, though he’s so obsessive about it that we relate more to Melanie’s response: “Honey, I love you, but please shut up.”
Well, the second part, anyway. The movie goes on to repeat this basic pattern, of Brad taking the kind of neurotic thought you or I might have, entertaining it to an obnoxious degree, and getting put in his place by another character, often his son (Troy, played by Austin Abrams). Later in the film the two are in Boston together to visit colleges, and when Brad finds out Troy wants to go to Harvard and might even get in, he goes from disengaged morose dad in the throes of self-doubt to overbearing academic stage parent. His fantasies shift too, from “Why couldn’t I have started a hedge fund like Luke Wilson’s character” to “I may not have as much money as those jerks but at least my noble sacrifices will all be redeemed by my genius son.”
Subjected to these wild character swings, Troy, not unreasonably, asks “Dad, what the fuck just happened?”
It’s perfectly stated and well-timed, but also kind of a joke at the expense of its own script. Brad’s dreams are an effective mix of pathetic, funny, relatable-ish, and eloquent. In bemoaning having married such an “easily contented” wife, Brad wonders if “maybe her contentment has been undermining my ambition.” Likewise, there’s an entertaining subplot involving Michael Sheen’s character, a pompous Harvard lecturer and frequent television commentator who has written books with titles like Political Animal. It ends, though, like most of the film’s sub-plots, with Brad acting like a thin-skinned, self-obsessed child.
It’s not that the movie seems unaware of this or needs to judge Brad more. In fact it does that plenty, as in a scene when Troy’s college friend freezes Brad mid-bitch, telling him “These sound like first-class problems.” Brad had been trying to talk her out of a life of social work, telling her that you get more respect if you make millions being a greedy capitalist and then give some of it away than if you devote your life to actual charity. It’s damning, and somewhat insightful, but coming in the form of some jerk’s selfish whining it’s almost apologetic, commentary that softens its own point. (What was its point, again?).
The problem is that Brad is just sort of a drag to spend 90 minutes with. Our introduction to his pathos begins with him scrolling Facebook, and while Brad’s problems go a little further than social media envy, in a lot of ways he’s like a generational-shifted Ingrid from Ingrid Goes West. Only where Brad is supposed to be this functioning, everyday dad, Ingrid is a full psychopath, which offers more possibilities. Who knew what she might do? In a weird way, being full-on crazy allowed her to be likable. Brad isn’t that crazy, nor is he that charming, which means he’s kind of a bore. He’s a lot like you or me, only more obnoxious.