Most fictional films, even those “based on true events,” attempt to heighten reality, emphasizing certain elements to make scenes more dramatic or comedic. It’s the rare movie that eschews this storytelling device in an attempt to show people as they really are, letting the chips fall where they may.
Writer/director Mike White has delivered such a film with Brad’s Status, which follows Brad (Ben Stiller), a disaffected middle-aged man who’s envious of the success his college classmates have enjoyed. Each of them — Craig (Michael Sheen), Billy (Jemaine Clement), Jason (Luke Wilson), and Nick (White) — appears to live the life of a one-percenter, or at least well above Brad’s station.
Brad has a good-if-unheralded job as a head of nonprofit company, he's in a comfortable-if-unspectacular marriage with Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and their son, Troy (Austin Abrams), is on track to make it into several prestigious universities. The bulk of the film takes place during a trip to Boston, in which Brad and Troy plan to visit several campuses.
Much of the film’s spoken words actually take place in Brad’s head via voiceover, as he has seemingly endless thoughts on his lot in life. White uses the method so much that many may find it grossly excessive, but for my money, it brings Brad into sharper focus than a film full of traditional dialogue would have done.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of meaningful conversations in the film. In fact, virtually every encounter Brad has is a significant one, full of the kind of talk that you rarely get to hear in movies these days. Consequently, the film feels achingly honest, as if you were witnessing someone go through real existential troubles instead of made-up ones.
It’s here where the casting of Stiller pays off. Though he’s gained fame for comedy work, Stiller has some true dramatic chops, and he gets to show off a bit of each here. White slyly subverts expectations of Stiller, presenting multiple situations where we assume he’ll fly off the handle, Meet the Parents-style, only to have him pull back and show restraint like a real person would. There are a handful of hyperbolic scenes, but they clearly are conjured from Brad’s overactive brain.
Some last-minute revelations do feel a little on the nose, presented as true discoveries when anyone who wasn’t as self-centered as Brad would’ve realized the truth well before then. But even then, it’s hard not to relate to him, as most of us would admit to getting lost in our own heads from time to time.
There’s nothing fancy about Brad’s Status; it’s simply a straightforward story about one man’s struggle to come to terms with who he is. But when few movies dare to be so forthright, it also comes off as a breath of fresh air in the land of make-believe.