Ben Stiller and Jenna Fischer in Brad’s Status.
Mike White is no stranger to writing complicated, somewhat unlikable characters. He wrote on Freaks and Geeks, though he really rose to prominence in Chuck & Buck, an early cringe comedy from Miguel Arteta which White wrote and starred in as the immature and obsessive Buck. There’s been a certain neurotic quality to White’s work since then, even if some of the films (School of Rock, Nacho Libre) have been considerably sunnier. Brad’s Status (White’s second directorial effort after 2007’s Year of the Dog) is a film about a self-pitying, self-mythologizing middle-class man who perceives his comfortable middle-class life to be a failure. It is not, in the current political climate, the most relatable character White could dream up — and he knows it.
“I think there’s definitely a part of me that.. Yeah, I have those moments,” says White. “I’m lying in bed and insecure and, you know, my ego. I want to feel like I have a great status and I’m comparing myself to others. But it’s not a part of myself that I want to think about. After a while, I started to think that maybe there was something in this that would be not necessarily therapeutic, but cathartic, to get into and unpack in a movie. I find sometimes when I’m in that headspace, just being aware that that’s what I’m doing helps me snap out of it. I feel like maybe the movie helps distill that behaviour. Brad is so that that the audience could have some kind of epiphany about their own ways of thinking.”
Brad (Ben Stiller) runs a modest non-profit out of Sacramento, where he moved mostly in order to allow his wife (Jenna Fischer) to work in government. They have one son, Troy (Austin Abrams), a gifted musician and all-around pretty stand-up 18-year-old who is about to go off to college. Brad decides to accompany Troy on his tour of East Coast colleges; as a Tufts graduate, he sees it as a good opportunity to engage in a bit of nostalgic tourism. Instead, the college tour soon becomes a malevolent obsession for Brad as he obsesses over the fact that his college buddies (Jemaine Clement, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson and White himself) have all become fabulously rich and successful while he remains only decently happy and in need of nothing in particular.
White shot the film in Montreal, a financial decision that he originally rejected. “It was a financial thing,” says White. “The movie takes place in Cambridge, and usually a lot of movies are shot in Massachusetts because they have a big rebate, so I assumed we’d be able to shoot where it takes place and get the rebate. The exchange was better enough that we ended up in Montreal. And I was like, ‘Montreal?! NO!’ I’d never been there. ‘No! This is bullshit! Why are we shooting there?!’ And then two weeks later, I was like ‘This city’s awesome! Why was I kicking up a storm?!’ It was perfect for our needs, as well.”
Brad’s Status is propelled by a nearly incessant voice-over from Stiller that immediately places his character in the same sphere as other eternal malcontents he’s played (mainly in the films of Noah Baumbach). The difference about Brad is, although he is definitely full of shit from the first time he begins to idealize lives he actually knows nothing about, his baseless concerns nevertheless begin to worm their way into our brain in the same way they worm their way into his.
“I wanted to get into some of those things,” explains White. “He says it himself: he either spends all his time building himself up or tearing himself down. That’s what these voices of his are. He’s either self-mythologizing or self-pitying. It’s something that we can do. We can start self-dramatizing: either you’re a piece of shit or you’re the fuckin’ best. You wanna be the most special, the only child of the world, and I think that part of your animal brain is still in there.”
The voiceover therefore takes on more than a simple expository role: it’s a constantly bubbling stew of neuroses and self-doubt, less designed to fill in the blanks than to make sure that we, too, live in this constant state of paralyzed jealousy.
“On its face, the film is not full of plot,” explains White. “There’s not a ton of events. Inside his head, he’s up or he’s down, and there’s this kind of rollercoaster along the way. The only way I could do that was to really get inside his head. I felt like this is the kind of character that, if you weren’t accessing how he’s thinking and even more how he’s feeling, you would just have contempt for him.”
Still, White acknowledges that many people are likely to have contempt for Brad anyway. “This is the kind of character that, even before they step into the theatre…” he says. “He has a pretty good life, he’s a straight white guy… he has all of those things. I’ve spent a career writing characters that maybe, at first, you have a certain kind of reaction and you immediately put them in a certain kind of a box. The hope as a dramatist is that you can actually… make it so that people see themselves in a character like this. At this point in our culture, a guy like Brad is actually one of the hardest characters to create compassion for!” ■
Brad’s Status opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 23. Watch the trailer here: