Hey, whiny middle-aged white guys have feelings too, you know. That’s the subtext of writer-director Mike White’s sharp new comedy “Brad’s Status.” Mid-life crises are often great fodder for humor. It’s rarer when a comedy can also be so heartfelt.
Ben Stiller plays Brad, a husband and father who’s taking stock of his life and finding it wanting.
The truth is Brad’s a happily married man who’s raised a son smart enough to be recruited by many elite colleges. But he feels like a failure because he never hit it big financially. Or put more precisely, he worries that other people think he’s a failure because he never hit it big financially, and that makes him think that he’s a failure. He’s certainly well-off, just not as well-off as others, especially his college buddies.
He starts fretting about money.
“How much do you think your parent’s house is worth?”
“…I think they’re considering leaving it all to the grandkids.”
“What? Steve has three kids. He’s already rich. We only have one. How is that fair?”
All of Brad’s insecurities come to a head when he takes his kid on a tour of prospective college campuses. The fact that he never got into Harvard and settled for Tufts still rankles him, and the ways he dances around that with his son is laughable and very relatable.
Because Brad is an exaggerated version of the self-absorbed parent, many may find him insufferable. But the movie has more on its mind than just satirizing inept dads.
His return to campus life forces a serious mid-life reassessment. He finds himself re-identifying with the wide-eyed idealism of the college students he meets, for instance, but he’s also defensive about not following through on it.
“Do I sound jaded? I started out as idealistic as any of your friends over there.”
But primarily, the movie resonates far deeper than one might expect from a seemingly easy satire of the out-of-touch parent because of its depiction of the father-son relationship. Actor Austin Abrams is very natural as Troy, the ill-at-ease high school senior who’s also wise beyond his years. Like all teenagers, he’s mortally embarrassed by his dad, and Abrams betrays that discomfort all over his face. And since the film is full of Brad’s cringe-worthy moments, we, in the audience, can share in those cringes with Troy.
In fact, it’s part of the wit of the script that the teenager is the grounded one, for a change, and it’s the dad who’s in need of grounding.
“Dad, are you having some kind of nervous breakdown or something?”
In the context of the film, that line is both seriously earnest and laugh-out-loud funny. White’s screenplay maintains that delicate balance between the ridiculous and the real throughout.
“Brad’s Status” is a comedy with emotional range. White takes a well-worn comic exaggeration and humanizes it so successfully that when Brad’s tears well up at the end, so do ours. He’s learned a few things, and maybe so have we.