Comparison is the thief of joy. This famous sentiment, attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, pretty much sums up where Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller)’s head is at when we first meet him in writer/director Mike White‘s whip-smart and hugely enjoyable new comedy Brad’s Status.
Comfortably upper middle class Brad lives in Sacramento where he runs a successful nonprofit. He has a loving wife (Jenna Fischer) and a musical prodigy son, Troy (Austin Abrams) who is on the cusp of getting into Harvard. Despite all of his successes, Brad is in crisis. He can’t help feeling inadequate, and he incessantly, almost clinically, compares his status unfavorably to that of his four best college friends: a political pundit and bestselling author (Michael Sheen), a tech entrepreneur (Jemaine Clement), a hedge fund founder (Luke Wilson) and an extravagant Hollywood big shot (White).
Brad has mostly fallen out of touch with his old college buddies—mainly he just knows what they do for a living now, little beyond that—and yet he spends many of his waking hours daydreaming about how much more exotic, exciting and important their lives must be in comparison to his. While escorting Troy on the college hunt in New England, Brad happens to cross paths these guys from his past, and he runs a chance of finding some clarity and gratitude for his own life.
On the surface, Brad’s Status appears like it might be something conventional, either a familiar midlife crisis movie, or a father-son road trip movie. It’s not, and the key is the quality of the writing. White’s signature is his rich dialogue, and with Brad’s Status his words are as sharp and true as ever. Some screenwriters write smart people as they imagine smart people might talk—and that often amounts to dialogue that sounds far too scripted. The flawed and bright characters in this movie speak to each other in a way that sounds so real and spontaneous you’d swear it was all improvised—though that’s exactly what lets you know it’s all been carefully written and recited.
The film is well cast and the performances are strong across the board, the actors clearly relishing White’s words. Abrams (you might have seen him before in Paper Towns or The Walking Dead) shines with authenticity playing—as White himself puts it—a “monosyllabic millennial,” a gifted and quietly confident kid who does his best to hide his embarrassment by nearly everything his father does. Shazi Raja leaves an impression as a student who boldly calls out Brad for his self-absorbed discontent, something Brad needs to hear. It’s more than a little refreshing to see a film in which the kids, at times, guide the grownups.
Fischer exudes empathy and knowingness as she occasionally catches Brad drifting away from reality, and Sheen has a lot of fun as slimy television personality Craig Fisher, finding a balance between charisma and smarminess. A set piece near the end, a fateful dinner between the estranged Brad and Craig, is classic Mike White. Things start out polite and then gradually go to hell, which is actually a lot of squirmy fun for the audience. Well, I squirmed and I also just marveled at the way a great writer and two well-matched actors can turn uncomfortable small talk into something this cinematic and watchable.
The takeaway here is Stiller, who is soulful, graceful—and hilarious without ever being goofy or even “funny” in the way we might expect a comedy star of his stature to be. The humor and characters are never jokey; the comedy in White’s work comes from astute observations about how real people act in their everyday lives. You see uncomfortable truth onscreen, and you laugh—maybe wincing a little, too. This movie really makes one hope Stiller and White team up again, the director finding an almost childlike vulnerability in the actor that is captivating and irresistible.
A movie this delicate may at first glance appear deceptively simple, but there is considerable craft here. As a director, White is confident and precise. In the wake of several of Judd Apatow‘s blockbusters and the improv-heavy films they’ve inspired, we’ve gotten used to scenes in comedies dragging on for a while, often in the name of improvisation. White knows what he wants, and Brad’s Status is brisk and light on its feet.
There is even an affecting use of music throughout the film. Composed by Mark Mothersbaugh of the new wave band Devo (Whip It), the score of the film is an austere phrasing of flute and violin that sounds like anxiety in the form of music, capturing Brad’s slowly forming nervous breakdown. The climax of the film is a lovely and soft moment of introspection set at a classical concert, Dvořák’s Humoresque, performed by flute and violin. It serves as something of a punctuation mark at the end of a 101-minute film that I would have been happy to see unfold for another half hour. Honestly, I feel like I could listen to White’s characters talk to each other about their hopes, fears, insecurities and shortcomings for days on end. On the rare occasion you come across writing this good—and it is rare—you don’t really want it to stop.
From Amazon Studios, Brad’s Status opens in theaters September 15.
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