Film Review: Brad's Status

Narcissist learns money can't buy happiness, or something like that, in a tepid Ben Stiller vehicle.
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Ben Stiller's nebbishy loser shtick and Mike White's comedy of unease look like a good match, but Brad's Status fizzles instead of burns. A drippy midlife crisis yarn wrapped up in white male privilege irony, it finds Stiller adding a sticky coat of sentimentality to a part that needed something far more caustic.

Stiller is Brad Sloan, head of an unimportant Sacramento NGO whose son Troy (Austin Abrams) is off to the East Coast to tour colleges. Brad's along for the ride, filled with remorse over his life's path and aching for respect from the likes of airline clerks, restaurant hostesses and co-eds. Brad sees every wincing, cringe-worthy humiliation he suffers as proof that he isn't as lucky as his friends from college.

Seen in brief glimpses, they include film director Nick (Mike White), flaunting his wealth and boyfriend in the press; billionaire businessman Jason (Luke Wilson); retired tech entrepreneur Billy (Jemaine Clement), indulging himself in Hawaii; and smug TV pundit, author and Harvard professor Craig (Michael Sheen).

White nails a very specific stratum of privilege—mansions, private jets, gushing fans, upgraded seats—which Brad criticizes in vindictive daydreams. But his observations are dull, not funny. In Brad's hands, at least, puncturing odious white elites isn't as entertaining as you'd like.

White tackled a similar topic in Beatriz at Dinner, using Salma Hayek's masseuse as a device to browbeat her wealthy oppressors. But here the debate is limited to Brad's kvetching, mostly through an interior monologue rife with self-pitying comments like, "This is not the life I imagined."

By now, after Greenberg, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and While We're Young, Stiller can play a hypersensitive jerk like Brad in his sleep. His tortured grimaces, sighs of disbelief and lust-filled double takes all say he's better than everyone else, that he's been cheated out of wealth and fame by fate or destiny or something out of his control. The joke is supposed to be that Brad actually has a pretty good life, a point spelled out bluntly by Harvard student Ananya (Shazi Raja) in a subplot that can't escape creepy sexual overtones.

Whether intentionally or not, Brad is too self-absorbed to see that or to earn any sympathy from viewers. He knows nothing about his son and even less about his erstwhile friends. In fact, he knows nothing about the world at large except as it relates to his sense of aggrievement.

White tries to paper over Brad's gaps through a voice-over that's more bark than bite. Frankly, it's a lazy choice, just like the boring shots of scullers and campus quads that back up Brad's rants. Taking aim at very large targets, Brad's Status scores its few points more by accident than design.

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