Friday, September 22, 2017

Brad's Status: On life-support

Brad's Status (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang

Inevitability is the death of drama.

Ten minutes into Brad’s Status, it’s blindingly obvious where writer/director Mike White will take his story, and precisely how he’ll get there.

Brad (Ben Stiller, right) and his son, Troy (Austin Abrams), time their visit to Harvard so
they can catch a classical music concert by one of the latter's former high school friends.
And that journey is pretty damn dull.

Mind you, the premise would have been a tough sell, even under more optimal circumstances. A middle-class, mid-life crisis feels unpalatably narcissistic these days, and casting Ben Stiller in such a project is way too on the nose. Much of his career has involved playing self-absorbed mopes, and this story’s Brad Sloan finds Stiller treading his own well-worn ground.

A 101-minute self-pity party isn’t my idea of a good time. Particularly when White’s plot bumps are so predictable.

Brad and his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) lead comfortable lives in suburban Sacramento; he runs a nonprofit that matches worthy causes with like-minded angel investors, while she pulls in “real money” with a government job. Their 17-year-old only child Troy (Austin Abrams) is college-bound, prompting a father/son trip across the country, to check out the universities likely to extend offers on the basis of the lad’s strong transcript and solid extracurriculars.

It’s a milestone event for Brad, which triggers all sorts of memories, long-buried desires and Big Questions. Am I successful? Have I done everything in life, that my impassioned, idealistic college-age self intended?

Trouble is, White saddles Brad with some rather insensitive dialogue right off the bat, during the sleepless night before the trip, in the form of a financially themed chat with the patiently exhausted Melanie. Right away, we don’t like Brad. He sounds and behaves like a whiny jerk, and Stiller never does much to change that snap judgment.

Which is a problem, because we’re definitely supposed to identify — even sympathize — with this guy. That’s an uphill struggle, likely impossible for some.

Matters aren’t helped when Brad constantly shares his innermost thoughts, via a constant sulky voice-over. I’ve long found unrelenting off-camera narration a potential red flag in cinematic storytelling; very few writers and directors know how to use it properly. White isn’t one of them; the technique merely slows his already dull fill to a lifeless crawl.

The share-all Facebook age has amplified Brad’s doubts and misery, because he’s constantly reminded of the far more successful lives enjoyed by his four best friends from college: political pundit and best-selling author Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), ubiquitous on television and book covers; tech entrepreneur Billy Wearslter (Jemaine Clement), who cashed out and now leads a life of sybaritic bliss in Hawaii; hedge-fund founder Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson), wealthy enough to travel in his own jet; and Hollywood big shot Nick Pascale (White), whose palatial home is the subject of glossy magazine spreads.

Brad’s saga subsequently divides along two parallel paths. The more interesting half finds him trying to bond better with his son, in an effort to make up for lost time: a dynamic quickly recognized by every parent about to become an empty-nester. Although very little of White’s dialogue could be considered profound, he cajoles some quality moments from Stiller and Abrams. Their wary dance feels authentic.

Brad is all twitches, unfinished sentences, nervous tension and impulsive behavior. (In other words, typical Stiller.) Abrams’ Troy, in great contrast, is mellow, laid back, spare with words, and — this is important — sharply perceptive. He’s embarrassed by his father, yet nonetheless pleased to be with him.

It’s always an awkward moment for a kid, as a parent “devolves” into a fellow adult: the point at which a son is allowed to notice and even share his father’s insecurities. White’s touch, in many of these scenes, is as gentle and understated as Abrams’ performance.

This half of the story has potential, during the Boston excursion built around visits to Harvard and Tufts. The character dynamic expands to include Ananya (Shazi Raja), a couple of years older than Troy. She and a good friend, Maya (Luisa Lee), already happy and successful Harvard students, bubble with enthusiasm during an engaging dinner that — if only briefly — makes us forget the film’s primarily dour tone.

Alas, these real-world interactions share screen time with fantasies concocted by Brad’s imagination, as he envisions the lives being led by his four friends, and places himself in their respective worlds ... all the while prattling on, via voice-over, about all those paths not taken. Poor, poor, pitiful me.


Such wallowing twaddle is even harder to accept, given the lie at the heart of this narrative. Brad isn’t “friends” with the other four, and he has no right to feeling wounded by having been left out of recent get-togethers, because he obviously hasn’t put any effort into keeping up with them. Granted, this is part of the lesson that Brad must learn, during the course of this film, the moral of which goes no deeper than The Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like home.”

White does earn points for inserting a character who nails Brad for his shallow, first-world egomania: a thoroughly satisfying, slap-upside-the-head moment that concludes much too quickly. All of us, at one time or another, need somebody to ground us with a similarly perceptive reality check.

One also suspects that the Southern California-born White doesn’t think much of Sacramento; the city takes several barbed — and quite funny — shots during the course of this film.

Clement and Wilson are little more than cameo players, their fleeting screen time in keeping with the vague, unreliable sense that Brad has of Billy and Jason. Nick is the least developed of the quartet, White giving this role no personality whatsoever.

Sheen fares better, deftly shading Craig as a suave man-about-town who enjoys the spotlight in which he basks, while at the same time adding a subtly arrogant frisson that makes him mildly smarmy.

Mark Mothersbaugh’s soundtrack is as annoying as Brad, thanks to the frequent fingernails-on-blackboard screeching of a violin.

I often wonder how some films get made: how anybody ever could have thought, at any point, that a certain premise/script would amount to anything. Brad’s Status is a good example.

Ultimately, the one-note Truth at the end of this film isn’t nearly substantial — or enlightening — enough to justify the tedium getting there.

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