Brad’s Status is a Mike White joint. If you don’t know what this means, then boy are you in for a treat. If you’ve seen his masterful Chuck & Buck, or his criminally underrated TV show Enlightened, starring Laura Dern, you know what to expect. Mike White is the King of the Cringe, the master at dramatising awkward situations.
Consider a scene early on in Brad’s Status. Brad goes into his son Troy’s room to make sure he’s getting ready to leave for their trip. Troy is clad in only a towel, and seeing his son like this Brad becomes paralysed by a sudden realisation: Troy is now a man. For pretty much Troy’s entire life, and up until literally seconds ago, Brad saw his son as a boy—a vulnerable imp needing his guidance and protection. But this trip is the first concrete step toward Troy’s adulthood, and before long he will become Brad’s equal in society. It’s a climactic, life-altering moment.
Of course, Troy doesn’t know that all this is going on in his father’s head. From his point of view, he’s standing there naked and his father is just staring at him intently. For far, far too long. ‘I’m sorry,’ Brad says, once he realises he’s being inappropriate. ‘It’s just… you have a man’s body now,’ he adds, unhelpfully.
‘Uh, Dad? Can you not be creepy when I’m stressed out?’
This scene, like a great many scenes in Brad’s Status, creates a situation so awkward, you’ll likely wince. But White doesn’t create these scenes simply to get a rote reaction from his audience—this is a comedy, after all. It may be uncomfortable, but the result is always a catharsis. He highlights truths about the world so honest, you’re nodding, cringing, and laughing at the same time.
Most of Brad’s Status takes place on the aforementioned trip Brad and Troy take to look at colleges. Flying to New York, Brad wishes to reconnect with two schoolmates of his, played by Luke Wilson and Michael Sheen. Wilson is a very successful, oh, somethingorother, who Brad learns has his own private jet. Sheen is a very successful, oh, something else, who is always on TV and gets into the best restaurants.
Brad looks at his own life. Well, he doesn’t have a private jet. He’s never on TV. Sure, he has a pretty wife, a loving son he’s proud of. He has a nice house, a respectable car, and his head’s above water. But it just doesn’t feel… enough. He worries constantly: will he have enough money to send his son to a good college? Is he successful enough? Not just to himself but to… other people? He knows that he is privileged—he’s self-aware and worldly enough to identify this. But why doesn’t he feel privileged?
It’s common now to hear about the concept of Privilege in the media, especially as it pertains to white men, but most of this talk seems to take the form of directionless whinging. Mike White, with brutal honesty, puts the concept under a microscope. In fact, this film is one of the best cinematic examinations of the concept. It’s brilliant in how it manages to show exactly how advantaged Brad is while still letting the audience feel why he’s still experiencing inadequacy. Much the same way that a depressive can’t suddenly be happy when you list all the logical reasons they should be, someone like Brad can’t magically be grateful when confronted with his status.
White expertly illuminates the subtle, perceived slights of those drowning in the Sea of First World Problems. Upon entering a restaurant, Brad is faintly indignant at being seated at a loud table, by the door to the kitchen. He asks for a quieter table, but the waitress says they’re fully booked. Once his famous, mega-rich friend greets him, though, she ushers the two to a VIP table without hesitation.
In another scene, Brad tries to upgrade his plane tickets to business class, as a surprise treat for his son. Everything seems to be going smoothly when the ticket clerk suddenly hands Brad’s tickets back to him—no upgrade available. Brad protests; she had already begun the process and here he is, with the money ready. But his tickets were purchased on a discount website. Those can’t be exchanged for any other type of ticket. He leaves the counter, tail between his legs, a victim of his own thrift.
Voiceover is usually a risky choice, but the right one here. The entire movie basically follows Brad’s thought process during this specific time in his life. White gives Ben Stiller a very difficult job, as he basically has to react to words only he can hear without telegraphing emotion or overacting—much harder to do than you may think. But his performance is wonderful; it is largely because of him that the voiceover works so well. He convinces us completely that Brad is having these thoughts right in front of us, so the technique never becomes stale (as it does in, say, Wakefield). Austin Abrams gives Troy a lovely vulnerability, and proves himself Stiller’s equal.
If you haven’t sussed it by now, a Mike White film is a delicate balancing act. His task is to explore the uncomfortable without his material becoming unentertaining, or downright repellant. Though not perfect, Brad’s Status succeeds in being both White’s deepest and most entertaining screenplay. So if you’re new to his world, here’s as good a place to start as any.