BRAD’S STATUS: On Lives Lived Online
Brad's Status is a film about social media that is bolstered by its performances, but ultimately it is not particularly memorable.
Written and directed by Mike White – whose past screen credits include his work in writing the screenplay for School of Rock and developing the original HBO drama series Enlightened – Brad’s Status plays out with a lot of the same downtrodden melancholy that has become White‘s thematic staple. Ostensibly aiming to critique and satirize the acceleration of competitive impulses held between old friends as they are hyper-realized on social media, White has reached a level of accessibility that few of his other films have ever achieved.
After bursting into the independent film circuit with the release of the unsettling drama Chuck & Buck in 2000, White has slowly become the go-to talent to pen the kinds of grotesque minor characters who might otherwise populate the films of David Lynch. From tackling sticky subjects like hermaphrodites in Freaks and Geeks, to extrapolating on severe alienation and depression in Year of the Dog, White is never one to shy away from topics and people who might repel some viewers, which is exactly why Brad’s Status comes as something of a surprise.
Serving as perhaps White‘s most optimistic film yet, Brad’s Status sees Ben Stiller cast in a lead role that feels slightly less misanthropic than viewers have come to expect from White. Coming off of the despairing turn from Laura Dern in Enlightened, Stiller plays a surrogate White with a striking affability that simultaneously buoys the film’s effect and detracts from the script’s dour defeatism.
What’s On Your Mind?
Slowly over the course of the past ten years or so, social media hubs like Facebook and Twitter have reoriented the means by which we engage and interact with our peers, friends, and family. In a bygone era, friends were those with whom we spoke on a regular basis in person or on the phone. Now, friends constitute anyone we might have met only briefly in casual and disposable settings, but are now vying for our attention and sympathy online or via text message.
The act of signing onto Facebook alone is a disturbing assault on our collective privacy, as the website playfully asks users, “What’s on your mind,” at the top of each and every individual timeline. The result has been the development of a strange new cyber-language, replete with emoji, GIFs, and memes, by which we dishonestly open up to one another behind a wall of pop culture references and allusions.
But worse than anything else, social media has given rise to a growing sadness, in general perpetuated by the pictures we paint of ourselves online. Given the fact that our profiles on Facebook and Twitter are generally considered to be part of the public domain, the impulse to provide an impression of influence, popularity, power, and success about oneself is unavoidable. Whereas you might share some of the more wracking human pains during a face-to-face conversation over coffee, such troubling thoughts are often responded to with a deafening digital silence online.
Brad’s Status gets at a lot of these fairly routine anxieties of the digital age in the late 2010s with some humor and a healthy dose of cynicism. In the film, Stiller finds himself on a college tour of Boston, MA with his young son (Austin Abrams). The father-son excursion provides for some serious self-reflection on the part of Stiller, who spent his own time as an undergraduate in the greater metropolitan area while attending Tufts University decades earlier.
Looking back on his own life – which includes a loving and supporting wife (Jenna Fischer), and a personally fulfilling career in the non-profit sector – Stiller‘s thoughts begin to turn sour when he thinks about the monetary largesse and notorious success of his old college pals. Compared to Michael Sheen – who plays a former White House insider and best-selling novelist – Stiller is made to feel less than in White‘s film. Worried that he took a wrong turn and might have done better if he had gone into banking in order to procure the funds sorely needed of his philanthropic aspirations, Stiller approaches Facebook like a troublesome spiritual tormentor.
Yet his son is miraculously free of any familial anxieties. Determined to study music in college, Abrams shines as the post-ironic Millennial to Stiller‘s modern Baby Boomer. Passing through the halls of Harvard University and Tufts with a self-assured swagger and competent demeanor, Stiller is forced to reassess all of his insecurities in order to reach the film’s oddly touching third act.
Brad’s Status: Conclusion
White has definitely made better film’s than Brad’s Status. Enlightened is perhaps his best work, as it is bolstered by a talented cast of actors and comic performers who help to give voice to White‘s off-color cultural commentary, without making a joke out of their characters’ personal situations. Comparatively, Brad’s Status feels under-served by Stiller, who is too married to whimsy in his other movie roles, which collectively serve to eclipse his attempt at grounded turmoil in White‘s film.
Additionally, the film’s subject matter is broached with broad brush strokes that lack the kind of definition that made Year of the Dog an unforgettable exercise in heavy-heartedness. Oscillating between mild humor and navel-gazing pretension, Brad’s Status is a road movie about fathers and sons that sporadically lands when it stops taking everything so seriously.
By and large, White has done a laudable job in bringing Brad’s Status to the big screen, and casting Stiller in the lead role helps make the movie more approachable for general audiences. Nevertheless, the script’s subject matter has been broached with far more subtlety and nuance elsewhere – see Ingrid Goes West for a recent example – thereby lessening the reward of actually watching the finished production.
Have you grown tired of the demands of social media? Did you think Brad’s Status represented its thematic issues honestly?
Brad’s Status saw theatrical release in the U.S. on September 15, 2017. Find international release dates here.
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