"Brad's Status" is an important movie.
That's not to say it perfectly executes its ideas, or even that it carries itself with any self-importance. This isn't a movie begging for an Oscar (though I can think of one or two I wouldn't mind if it won). It's an honest, searching, small-scale human drama about a father going through an identity crisis.
And it's important.
In addition to my love of movies, I consider myself an avid spoken-word-audio-phile, I listen to a ton of podcasts and radio programs, and so far in 2017, one particular hour has made the biggest impact on me: an episode of "On Point" called, "Hoarding The American Dream," with author Richard Reeves. I was captivated by the conversation, and I have thought about what was said many times in the months since the conversation first aired.
I promise I'll come back to "Brad's Status" in a moment, but first, let me talk about this podcast episode.
Reeves has written a book called “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else In The Dust, Why That Is A Problem, And What To Do About It." His message is uncomfortable to many middle-class liberals, as evidenced by the angry callers who made it on the air in to that episode of "On Point."
Part of what's so uncomfortable to people about Reeves' message is that it extends the blame of unfair economic stratification in America to a broader group of culprits, and a group of people who don't think of themselves as culprits in the first place. He critiques the rhetoric of "We are the 99 percent," because it gives those in the top 20 percent of economic income (those with household incomes greater than $120,000) a pass to consider themselves "poor" by comparison.
Reeves points out how it's a natural tendency to think of oneself as worse off than the people around us, and given that zoning laws seek to maintain class status, those in the top 20 percent often have neighbors in similar economic fortunes, which means I might think I'm poor if I don't have the boat that the neighbor has.
This is exactly the mindset of Brad (Ben Stiller) in "Brad's Status," when his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) reminds him early on in the film, "We're not poor."
Writer-director Mike White has made a film that, like Reeves' book, aims a critique directly at the wealthy (and in this case, white) "middle class" who fail to see how they are part of the problem of economic disparity in the United States. I hope people see the film, and that it sparks conversations so that the people who get angry and defensive at the idea of "dream hoarding" can soften their hearts.
The story kicks into gear when Brad takes his teenager son Troy to Boston to see colleges. Brad is upset that his career of non-profit running has put him "behind" his own college friends who have had successful careers as political pundits and hedge fund managers.
But when Troy (Austin Abrams) lets slip that his grades and experience make him a good candidate for Harvard, Brad's eye sockets turn into dollar signs and unfulfilled dreams.
When Troy makes a mistake and misses his scheduled interview with the admissions office, Brad goes into full freak-out mode, and reaches out to his more famous and more wealthy friends to try to get an "in" with Harvard in a non-traditional way.
Or, maybe I should it say the most traditional way. The Dream Hoarder way.
I wish the film had a conclusion to match the strength of this setup -- it ends on an ambiguous note that lessens the impact of the social commentary going on.
But the film is packed with scenes that offer interesting ideas, and Ben Stiller's performance is strong. His face says it all -- which makes the excessive voiceover disappointing. I'd like to see a cut of the film without the voiceover though, because I'm sure Stiller's dramatic performance is strong enough to render it totally unnecessary.
Director: Mike White
Starring: Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen
Running time: 1 hour, 41 min
Rating: R for language