Mike White continues his perceptive examination of the angst and confusion of men and women entering the dangerous transitional period of middle life in the wonderful Brad’s Status (2017). It’s a theme that recurs in White’s writing, reaching its pinnacle in his beloved but too-short television series Enlightened (2011) which handed Laura Dern perhaps her juiciest role. In it she plays a woman attempting to return to her old life after a mental breakdown and subsequent spiritual awakening. However, she finds that fitting back in is an awkward and infuriatingly impossible task when the world and others in it won’t bend to meet her fears and concerns for the earth. Enlightened was an underrated gem and as close to perfection as a paltry eighteen episodes of television can achieve.
In Brad’s Status we find 47-year-old Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) on the cusp of a potentially damaging emotional change of his own. As head of a not-for-profit organisation, he’s dogged by a sense of chronic underachievement, feeling that his life has reached a horrifying plateau of futility. It brings on the terror of a future in which financial stability is no longer assured. At the same time, he catches uncomfortably glimpses of how the world has heaped lashings of good fortune on other close members of his former tight-knit circle of friends from school, all of whom have become obscenely wealthy and/or famous. Contact is now minimal and evidence that they’re actively excluding him from meaningful events in their lives only exacerbates his sense of becoming invisible and irrelevant.
Brad’s Status is one of White’s best screenplays and comes hot on the heels of the equally memorable Beatriz at Dinner (2017) directed by his long-time collaborator Miguel Arteta, which, similarly, saw an actress, Salma Hayek, handed one of the best roles of her career as a spiritual minded masseuse uncomfortably absorbed into the lair of a bunch of detestable, soulless, obscenely wealthy trough-gatherers for one scarring, revelatory evening.
Brad’s voiceover works to great effect, not so much as narration, but in processing his internal lamentations and secret observations. Most concerning are his uncomfortably truthful impressions of the various strands of his life, past and future, paths taken and untaken. There’s a sobering reality projected from this man’s troubled psyche as he discovers that his joy for the life and talent of his son (Austin Abrams) can be snubbed out in an instant by the insidious vengefulness of his own green-eyed monster at being usurped by somebody better, younger and intimately connected to him.
The cast is uniformly great but Stiller’s underplaying of Brad is another sign of maturation from an actor who still surprises when leaving comedy behind for drama or tragicomedy, such as his impressive work for Noah Baumbach like Greenberg (2010) and, most recently, The Meyerowitz Stories (2017). Like Beatriz at Dinner there’s a marvellous score by Mark Mothersbaugh, a long-time fixture in American independent cinema, which gets right at the emotional core of Brad’s internal struggles, especially when reflecting his deepest, most irrational fears with a skittering, off-kilter string motif that works like a needle pulling tirelessly at a frayed thread.
In the end we suspect Brad will make some form of compromise between no longer yearning competitively to match the materialistic notions of success of others whilst making peace with a deeper acceptance of what the meaning of his individual life has, can and will be. It’s the kind of conclusion that, essentially, we all make every day and Brad’s status is our own, revealed back to us truthfully and humanely by White’s marvellous dialogue with humour, compassion and insight.