At first glance, Ben Stiller and Mike White collaborating on a project is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of middle aged male angst. Brad’s Status, it’s true, doesn’t dispel its fog of melancholy. But writer-director White’s film about the head of a non-profit on a New England college tour with his son Troy (Austin Adams) while having what Troy says is a “nervous breakdown” strikes a few unexpected notes as the film eases into a conclusion similar thematically (but not tonally) to the moment in Hannah and Her Sisters when the Woody Allen character discovers the meaning of life in Duck Soup.
Thanks to the reams of often pedantic and too thorough voice-over, audiences learn that Brad (Stiller) suffers pangs of envy thinking about his friends from Tufts, all of whom on first glance are successful, influential people: a hedge fund owner (Luke Wilson); a gay director (White) to whose marriage Brad was uninvited; a retired techie (Jemaine Clement) enjoying two wahines on a beach in Maui; and, most gallingly, Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), a permanent resident on political talk shows, offering cynical chatter for cynical people. His affection for wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) has trouble with what he perceives as her quickness to settle, to making do. “Some guys have empires. What do I have?” he wonders. “I live in Sacramento.” On realizing that Troy, hoping for a music scholarship to Harvard, has gotten the date of his interview with the admission officer wrong, Brad has to swallow his pride: he rings up Craig, an adjunct with connections to the dean of admissions. Delighted with the beau geste, Craig even throws in an interview with a professor music whom Troy has long admired.
One of the film’s points, made without too much crayon underscoring, is how power is often a consequence of access. No matter how solid Troy’s grades or keyboard talents, he now has Craig as a sponsor, which may be enough to guarantee admission. But so self-absorbed is Greg that he can’t stop boring strangers with his kvetching, including a schoolmate of Troy’s three years his senior who’s a flautist and a government major at Harvard. She’s also Indian and has seen something of the world. To Greg’s oft-repeated question “When did it go wrong?” her reply essentially is, It’s always been wrong; you’re just privileged enough not to notice.
A specialist in delineating the ways in which American men embarrass themselves as well as introducing a hint of class consciousness, White knows this terrain (see The Good Girl, Chuck and Buck). Earlier this year Miquel Arteta directed a muddled and unsatisfying film called Beatriz at Dinner out of White’s script. At least Arteta has a decent visual sense. White’s approach abjures spontaneity: we know what his characters think and where he will take them before the first third of his pictures have ended. He doesn’t lack generosity – that’s Alexxander Payne’s original sin – so much as imagination. Characters who don’t fit his schemas don’t belong in his world. The second Brad approaches a ticket counter hoping to get an upgrade we know he’ll get spurned in an abject manner. If a character meets two young women, you can set a stopwatch to the moment when we learn the character dreams of a threesome, although I am prepared to concede that most men I’ve met in real life, gay and straight, dream of threesomes.
Fortunately, White has learned enough as a director to stage conversations with some freshness – the encounters between Brad and the flautist, played by Shazi Raja, for example. His camera suspends jugment. To Stiller’s credit, Brad emerges as a man no more deluded than the average, redeemed by his genuine affection for Troy; he likes being with him, touching him, squeezing his hand (Stiller’s having played a more acerbic variant on this character in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg a few years ago helps). Adams responds in kind; using his deep voice to make wry, squirrelly remarks, he gives the film’s best performance. And when Brad and Craig Fisher meet for dinner at last, White avoids showboating. Brad’s Status has spent ninety minutes building toward this confrontation between a pair of egotists, and White, framing Stiller and Shannon in classic TV medium shot, lets them discover the depths of their shallow friendship, if it ever was one: Brad, pleading and pricking Craig for signs of life, Craig affecting dumbfoundment so he can position himself as the mature person (Shannon, who played David Frost in the execrable Frost/Nixon, adds another rotter of modest intelligence to his gallery).
But it’s Brad and Troy’s jacket-cossetted perambulations in the soft light of a Boston autumn that lend White’s film its mild resonance. Despite its reluctance to push harder against its limitations and cable show insights, Brad’s Status understands that private intimacies compensate for disappointments without end. The only thing missing from the picture was a soundtrack by The National.