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'Brad's Status': What's It All About, Alfie?

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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In "Brad's Status," Brad Sloan nearly drives us crazy with his unremitting regret and self-doubt as he accompanies his son, Troy, played by Austin Abrams, to look at colleges in Boston. Oh, we all do it. That's how we keep score. It's just that Brad, portrayed by Ben Stiller, is especially effective in showing us how unattractive this practice seems if not kept in check. Still, we are compelled to commiserate, appreciating that Stiller's imaging of the neurotic, 21st century everyman adds an insightful chapter to the human comedy.
Written and directed by Mike White, Brad's travail is entertaining in that alternately painful and bittersweet way, when divulged truths show us what's really important. Indeed, most of us are destined to crush our souls in the crucible of experience and deep introspection before arriving at those long sought, wise decisions. Alas, there's no one-size fits-all template from which to choose one's proper, as opposed to "successful," path in life. The idea here is to be wary of that S word. Your individualism is at stake.
Sitting in our movie seats, we are a bit smug, certain that if we could grab the title character by the shoulders we might shake some sense into him. But if the profferings don't conjure a bad choice or two of your own, you're a better man than I, Gunga Din. The watershed that the trip represents has Brad anguishing. Long an idealist who heads a charitable non-profit he founded, it has suddenly become deeply troubling to him that every one of his best buddies in college has become filthy rich. He is now second-guessing not just his career, but his entire life.
Narrating the events via a meditative voiceover, Stiller is superb in emoting the universal thoughts White's screenplay so intelligently mixes with its profoundly simple realism. He does it in several telling scenes. Unable to fall sleep one night, a bit of pillow talk with his antithetically optimistic wife, Melanie, played by Jenna Fischer, mirrors the everyday worries that punctuate our being. Later, a heartfelt tête-à- tête between father and son in a Boston hotel room reminds of those rare great moments when everything suddenly makes sense. 
Borrowing from a style of self-examination Woody Allen has honed to an art form, the plot structure uses practically each action in the tale to elicit a cerebral reaction from Brad, oftentimes leading to an imagined scenario, either happy, nightmarish or just plain paranoid. But the consternation isn't just about the Freud and Jung of it all. In tearing asunder his fragile place in this world, our searcher for truth, reason, identity and perhaps even joy, if he dares, also invokes whole bunches of Marx and Darwin. Should he have tried to be rich instead of altruistic?
In mining the great unknown for answers, Brad embodies his very own yin and yang, a tenuous scale that switches from comedy to drama with each revelation or fear, unfounded or not. It's a bit of a roller coaster ride, featuring a self-indulgence that in lesser hands could wear the patience of some viewers. However, showing more sides to his thespic talent than perhaps he even knew existed, Stiller makes it work, turning his character's psyche into a funhouse of emotions, humorous, frightening and cathartic.
Supplying a touching synergy, the exercise in egocentrism is checked and sweetly balanced by Troy, the apple of Brad's eye. He is a likable product of his times. If you've been paying attention to the growth and emergence of this pragmatic new generation we've somehow spawned, you'll note that aside from the ubiquitously tendered "no problem" at every available opportunity, they are quite something. No fools, their healthy adaptation in this sudden era of reactionary insanity is attended by a perspicacity that won't so easily suffer false prophets.
In short, the rather confident Troy engagingly symbolizes a hope for the future that gives broader definition to Brad's obsession over his accomplishments and perceived shortcomings. You know, the child is father to the man and all that. One night, while dad is fretting out loud, Troy matter-of- factly opines, "I think I can get into Harvard." True or not, any parent who doesn't share Brad's initial shock, wonder and ebullience at the moment of this casually delivered bit of manna from heaven has perhaps missed out on the generational bliss in life.
OK, it's not Steinbeck, Fitzgerald or O'Neill. But doubtlessly those and other legacy authors were not lost on writer-director Mike White as he studied his way to one day pen this astutely composed delve into life's most important passing of the baton. While theatrically embellished here and there for commercial palatability, its smart, literate slice of humanism assures "Brad's Status" as a satisfying night at the Bijou.
"Brad's Status," rated R, is an Annapurna release directed by Mike White and stars Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams and Jenna Fischer. Running time: 101 minutes

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