Midlife crisis fueled by envy
Writer-director Mike White’s comedy ‘Brad’s Status’ stars Ben Stiller as a neurotic dad
Mike White’s current status is just fine, thank you for asking.
The Pasadena native has been writing up a storm lately, and the results hit theaters this year in everything from the acclaimed and controversial indie film “Beatriz at Dinner” to the not-acclaimed but rather popular “The Emoji Movie” to the new “Brad’s Status,” which the sometime actor also directed.
That last one is also getting some good notices. It takes a character we’ve seen star Ben Stiller play before — a guy in the throes of a midlife crisis who doesn’t deal with it at all elegantly — to rich emotional depths and squirmily inventive, comic situations.
“I wanted to unpack the idea of how people come to a certain state of their lives and have a sense of comparative anxiety,” says White who, at 47, is the same age that his father was when the two of them toured colleges for Mike, the memory of which forms the core of Stiller’s Brad Sloan and his teenage son Troy’s (played by “The Walking Dead’s” Austin Abrams) misadventures in the film.
“I find that’s more common than ever now because other people’s lives are so accessible through social media,” White continues. “I think we all share a general anxiety which is like, are people having more fun than me, do they have a cushier life than me, did I make the wrong choices? It feels more than ever like people are winning the lottery around you and it makes you have this kind of covetousness, potentially. So I wanted to unpack some of those feelings that I have sometimes, even though I’m pretty happy with who I am and my career and all of that. I think it’s just something that is natural.”
As Brad sets out with his easygoing, music prodigy son on their New England journey, his mind is racing, often in voiceover, with thoughts of how his Sacramento not-forprofit business is small potatoes compared to how his own college buddies’ careers and lives have worked out. Though happily married to the adorable Melanie (Jenna Fischer), he can’t help but envy the one who became a jet-setting hedge fund operator (Luke Wilson), an already retired tech gazillionaire (Jemaine Clement) who lives in Hawaii with two gorgeous young babes, a political media superstar with high Washington connections (Michael Sheen) and a top Hollywood filmmaker (White himself).
The director filmed Brad’s imaginings of what his friends, who unsurprisingly have fallen out of touch with him, are up to as counterpoints to the embarrassing reactions that the unhappy man has to both real and perceived slights. Brad is given moments of clarity, though, and as battered by media-driven narcissism as he is, something in him still recognizes that material success may not be the true source of happiness.
“It’s about learning the important things in life, y’know?” White says, a little mortified that the ageold truism might apply here. “How the people that are right in front of you are the measure of your success more than some of these other, external things that we put priority on. I think everybody learns that, but you have to keep relearning it in your life, over and over again. That actually happens in the movie, where Brad will have the epiphany of, like, oh this is what’s really important, then two minutes later he doesn’t get the right table at the restaurant and he’s triggered again.
“I think it’s unreal that you have an epiphany and, suddenly, you’re just blissedout for the rest of your life. Anxiety creeps in, and that’s human. Basically, the hope is that you’re just sort of circling the drain of wisdom with each passing experience. You may never get all the way there, but you creep closer and closer.”
Well-written as all of this is, Brad still comes off as probably the most unconsciously obnoxious character Stiller has played in a filmography filled with those guys. Not a problem for White, who since his breakout screenplay for “Chuck & Buck” in 2000 has specialized in finding the humanity in disconcertingly dislikable characters. Stiller isn’t on the same spectrum as beloved comics who have also gotten the White treatment, such as Jennifer Aniston (“The Good Girl”), Jack Black (“School of Rock”) and Molly Shannon (“Year of the Dog”). But the director feels he’s given the angsty actor a somewhat similar image adjustment.
“The truth is, I’ve written a lot of movies from a female point of view, and I write a lot of characters that do have an unlikable side — at least, that’s the reactions I get,” White points out. “I did this show with Laura Dern and, at least for the first season, people were like, oh my God, she makes me want to pull my hair out. So I wasn’t afraid to make Brad kind of navel-gazing and in his own head, but I think that’s true to life for a lot of people.”
Brad is the living embodiment of Straight White Guy problems, and at a point in the movie when even the most SWGs in the audience can’t take any more of his whining, White shrewdly lets Brad have it right between the eyes from a young woman of color. That exemplifies his complex view of the whole subgenre “Brad’s Status” fits into while trying to subvert.
“There are a lot of these, what I think some critic called ‘west of the 405,’ comedies of people who live in these great houses and are rich and whatever their problems are, they feel so rarefied,” White notes. “I really want to pull my eyes out at those movies sometimes, because what they’re proffering is a certain attitude that this is relatable to every person — and it’s so not. At the same time, there’s this other trend that a straight white guy, almost by the nature of their identity, doesn’t have problems, or that their problems are not worth depicting at this point in time.
“The trick is, people who have enough still have this anxiety and existential angst, and it’s real. I think that’s fair, and I also think the response of ‘Just don’t ask me to feel sorry for you’ is fair, too. Making that conversation part of the movie felt necessary. At the same time, I didn’t want to just do the sardonic satire of Brad. I also felt like it was worth some compassion while being honest about his lack of perspective.”