Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 17, 2017 3:25 am 
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Upper middle class envy

Brad's Status, the fourth film where actor and writer Mike White also directs, is about a man whose life is fine who nonetheless becomes dissatisfied with it and goes through a midlife crisis, just when he and his son go on a trip to Boston for the boy to interview for colleges. The college application story and the personal crisis dovetail neatly: both are on the cusp of competitiveness and status. However, compared to some of White's movies, which were hilarious or edgy, Brad's Status is flat. I felt like I was watching an unusually glossy classroom instructional film, a morally upbeat one about accepting our choices and appreciating who we are. Still, the cast is good and the movie is a reasonably entertaining watch.

Brad, whose voiceover dominates the movie, is forty-seven years old, like White. They went to live in Sacramento, "a second tier city," as he now calls it disparagingly, because his wife's government job was there. He left careers first in journalism, then magazine publishing, to start a small non-profit that raises money for good causes through social media. His wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) tells him their life is perfectly fine. They have all they need. But he can't sleep. He is comparing himself unfavorably with four high achievers who were best friends of his in college. As Brad ruminates, we see quick visualizations of how those other guys live. One is a famous writer often on TV, another made a fortune and has retired to Hawaii with two young girl friends. Another is a successful Hollywood director - for which, humorously, White himself plays a cameo as an exaggeratedly gay Hollywood personality who had a flamboyant gay wedding and whose house was on the cover of Architectural Digest.

Instead of appreciating - or being indifferent to - his classmates' accomplishments, Brad feels envious of them and senses them as reproaches. White has some fun with all these details of the fantasies and the realities. But the way they feel like tokens being pushed around made The New Yorker's Richard Brody describe this movie as like a "PowerPoint" lecture. This is part of the point, though, and I'm not sure it's a serious fault: Brad's sense of these "better off" classmates is abstract, and the only person's life he can know is his own, which he just needs to learn to appreciate.

It turns out Brad's college-bound son Troy (the hyper-composed Austin Abrams), a gifted keyboard artist as well as a composer, is a bigger deal than Brad realized. Troy has been told by his guidance counselor that he can get into any college he applies to, including Yale. That excites Brad, till he discovers Troy prefers Harvard, because of a music teacher there. But they also go to visit Tufts, Brad's alma mater. Brad feels out-matched by Troy already, and also tempted (prematurely) to start living through Troy's future successes. Just as we see Brad's technicolor fantasies of those high-achieving college buddies, we see his alternate scenarios of Troy's future successes. Or his failure. Since Troy's main talent is in music, Brad realizes that he might wind up a busker on the street. But he also excitedly visualizes him as a Silicon Valley billionaire on the cover of Wired.

All the movies' elements come into play when it turns out the brilliant Troy has nonetheless goofed up on dates, and they're a day late for his Harvard interview. An alumni interview back home will have to do, and the admissions officials assure them alumni interviews have equal status. Status? No. They can't be equal. And Brad gets on the phone to persuade his estranged hotshot pales to pull the necessary strings to get Troy an interview at Harvard pdq. The preternaturally mature Troy is still totally mortified at his father's frantic, uncool behavior. It nonetheless succeeds - perhaps sending a rather mixed message to the viewer.

Well, no Harvard aspirants were harmed in the making of this movie, but what happens is we, and Brad, get the lesson that those hotshots really aren't so hot. The billionaire is a drunk and druggie, the bestselling author is a supercilious prick, the movie director has become flamingly gay, and the other rich guy is suffering a child's intense medical crisis.

In a key scene for this movie's message, the insomniac Brad has a late drink with Ananya (Shazi Raja), a Harvard student of Indian parentage Troy knew in school whom they had dinner with earlier, along with a Korean-American friend, Maya (Luisa Lee). Ananya also has non-profit aspirations, and she was delighted with Bard's non-profit. But he now lets her down, saying he wishes he'd skipped the non-profit and just made a lot of money. She lectures him good on his self-dissatisfaction. Compared to the people of India, he's unimaginably rich. And so on. Brad's "failure" is upper middle-class failure, which is to say not failure at all. Ananya is a non-white woman to lecture the white audience, as Selma Hayek also did in White's other movie this year, Dinner with Beatriz, which his regular collaborator Miguel Arteta directed. That movie taught us about politics and class, as this one teaches us about self-respect.

The movie ends with several spliced-together scenes, first a dinner where Brad learns the famous writer Craig Fisher (the chameleonic Martin Sheen) is indeed an asshole, but not before Craig passes on some damning gossip about the other hotshot classmates; and then a corny concert scene where Ananya and Maya perform (they're both accomplished musicians, obviously) and Brad bursts into tears with his voiceover mouthing platitudes about life.

Where the movie excels is in the way Stiller can convey handsome insecurity. (He looks so distinguished now in his early fifties that it's a bit hard to see him as weighed down by a sense of inadequacy., though.) And he and Austin Abrams play off each other so nicely, Stiller hyper, Abrams zen. It's dangerous to lecture the audience though, as White has Ananya do.

Brad's Status, 101 mins., debuted at Toronto 9 Sept. 2017, opened in US theaters 15 Sept.

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