The most persuasive studies of masculine ennui tend to involve some cultural/historical/political/social breath that make these exercises endurable. Consider the rigid social order that prevents Jude from ascending in caste in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Harry White’s insatiable and pathological desire for sin in Hubert Selby Jr.’s The Demon, or, more recently, the cyclical trauma and warped celebrity culture that underscores BoJack’s every plunge into depravity in Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman. Today’s case study involves Brad Sloane (Ben Stiller) of Mike White’s Brad’s Status. We take our first glimpse into his existential crisis as he tosses and turns in bed. Stiller’s pronounced tenor informs us through voiceover that he’s disturbed by the exit of an employee who confessed that the non-profit that Sloane operates has depressed him into leaving the organization. Distraught, Sloane singles out the event as a cosmic calling to reconsider all his actions leading up to this moment: why has he, among his cadre of college friends, failed so miserably?
Sloane’s concerns, as he rests beneath the comforter of his California King bed next to his beautiful, gainfully employed wife in his home outside of Sacramento, are earmarked by the fact that he’s escorting his son Troy (Austin Brahms) to Boston via commercial flight where they’re visiting various colleges, including one of the Ivy League variety. The sheer privilege of that preceding sentence isn’t played for comic effect, unfortunately, and instead serves as an un-ironic display of white male narcissism left unchecked. Sloane’s concept of value and self-worth remains vested in what’s more or less a purely American conceit of accumulation of titles, status, and things as a metric of success. Success is exclusive. It’s not having to wait in line. It’s sitting on the opposite side of the curtain on a plane. These are the kind of toothless insights that White makes to dramatize Sloane’s ennui.
The things that make Sloane feel successful – his home, his non-profit, his son, the self-professed value of not selling out – have little resonance to his old friends, which includes a coterie of comically caricatured elite millionaires. This includes author and political correspondent Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), hedge-fund jet-owner Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson), flamboyantly gay filmmaker Nick Pascale (Nick White) and retired island dweller Billy Wearstler (Jemaine Clement). Reduced to essentially cameo roles, these figures orbit every one of Sloane’s waking thoughts. That is until his son botches the time for his Harvard interview, prompting Sloane to reconnect with Fisher in hopes that he’ll have the pull to persuade the school (of which Fisher teaches) to reconsider. It works, though Sloane’s neurosis mutates into an all-together different beast as he attempts to reconcile the fact that he now looks to his son to achieve what he could not.
As a formal object, Brad’s Status (barely) qualifies as a film. To suggest that White’s approach is amateurish would falsely project a sense that the film has ambition. It’s textureless. There’s nothing visually tactile about how the film moves from Sloane’s outer reality to his infantile daydreaming. The only distinctive measure that White makes is employing a string arrangement to signal the onset of Sloane’s pitiful neurosis. Not a bit of it registers as convincing or profound, which becomes especially problematic when you consider how much of the film involves Stiller reciting exposition. White will deploy Stiller’s wall-to-wall narration to either unnecessarily reinforce a ridiculous visual gag or simply canvas insert shots with sound.
Ben Stiller is a pliable actor with a particular knack for playing this sort of pithy, self-deprecating character. He already did in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. But the distinction between what makes that film great and what makes Brad’s Status not is significant. It’s something that goes beyond the lush textures of Harry Savides’ cinematography and becomes something firmly rooted in the DNA of the picture. White’s film mimics the feeling of anomie, isolation, and disappointments without really knowing what they’re about. And if White can’t even get that right, what you’re left with in Brad’s Status is a fashionable, digestible, imitation bootleg of real despair. It’s lip service to agony. Why bother?