Ben Stiller is adept at marshalling the roles required in a cringe comedy; think of his work in Greenberg or Meet the Parents. Few can convey the low-key obsessive personality as well as him, with his subtle way of overstepping the mark being even more painful due to the familiarity of the situation.
He’s at it again with the titular role in Brad’s Status, playing a bitter middle-aged father who is becoming increasingly jealous of his university contemporaries’ success. At what first seems like unhealthy competition starts to become a worrying obsession, envisaging their privileged lifestyles in humorous fashion, ranging from owning private jets to having a villa on a Caribbean island. The relationship between the five guys is described aptly as one “not bonded by friendship,” but rather by their “perceived level of success.”
His anxiety is heightened by the fact he’s escorting his son, Troy (Austin Abrams) around the Harvard University campus. Feeling the need to gratify himself, he declares his son as a “true prodigy”; in one excellent scene, the roles of the gloating parent are reversed, showcasing the film’s willingness to portray its main character in an unfavourable light.
Penned and directed by Mike White – most famous for writing and playing Ned Schneebly in Richard Linklater’s School of Rock – as a semi-autobiographical story, clear thought has gone into the way in which there are multiple perspectives to each situation. Brad’s ‘friends’ are routinely portrayed as being arrogant and narcissistic, but he hasn’t seen any of them for years, and you start to realise he is just as privileged as the people he’s criticising, for he is living comfortably despite the fact he runs a non-profit organisation.
The imagined scenarios of his friends in tandem with real-life conversations are the greatest source of comedy in the film; the increasing absurdity of the visions nicely juxtaposes the downbeat nature of real-life. This feeling of existential angst is conveyed through Brad’s internal monologues; whilst they are initially welcomed, they become redundant as the film progresses due to the audience’s growing familiarity with the character, for Brad is merely articulating what we can clearly see.
Equally frustrating is the lethargic nature of Troy; his lack of enthusiasm for anything renders his character as nothing more than a blank slate. Whilst all the characters are shown to be flawed, White does encourage you to sympathise with Troy – this is despite his lack of gratitude towards his dad after he arranges a meeting with the Dean of Admissions after a previous mishap.
These weaknesses stop Brad’s Status from completely fulfilling its promise, but White’s screenplay tackles existential angst and white-middle-class society convincingly enough that these drawbacks thankfully become nothing more than minor quibbles. Following an excellent performance in The Meyerowitz Stories, it’s been a good few months for Stiller; given his penchant for succeeding in these kinds of roles, there’s nothing to say that won’t continue.