Midlife cri­sis fu­eled by envy

Writer-di­rec­tor Mike White’s com­edy ‘Brad’s Sta­tus’ stars Ben Stiller as a neu­rotic dad

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - FEATURES - By Bob Strauss South­ern Cal­i­for­nia News Group

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.”

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