There are very few laughs in Brad’s Status. This is by design. Contrary to its marketing, which pitches the Ben Stiller film as a cringe comedy about a father embarrassing his son on a trip to visit colleges, the sophomore directorial effort from Hollywood screenwriter Mike White is a dark, desperate affair. It’s a deeply internal drama about middle-aged regret that spares the audience none of its protagonist’s discomfort. If Ingmar Bergman were middle-aged and making movies in Hollywood, he might make something like Brad’s Status.
Its themes feel very similar to Mike White’s other 2017 film, Beatriz at Dinner. Both are about hopeful, perhaps naive people who are committed to making the world a better place but find themselves confronted with the limits of their activism. These films were made in 2016 but feel deeply connected to this horrible, no-good year. Those who find themselves bewildered and confused, questioning the old methods of advancing social change, will find much to relate to in these films. But to White’s credit, they will find no easy answers, only a mirror that reflects the truth a bit too accurately.
In Beatriz at Dinner, the Trumpian themes are hard to miss. The film, written by White and directed by frequent collaborator Miguel Arteta, is about an animal rights activist (Salma Hayek) who confronts a big game hunter (John Lithgow) at a dinner party, but the script seamlessly weaves issues of class, environmental degradation, and immigration into its central drama. Animal rights activists cheered the film, and White – a noted vegan – was inspired to write the film by the controversy over Cecil the Lion in 2015, but activists championing any pet cause are able to relate. The hunter, an arrogant billionaire and real estate developer, also makes a handy stand-in for Trump.
Brad’s Status is not overtly political, but its protagonist seems like an avatar for the disillusioned liberal activist in 2017. Brad (Stiller) is a non-profit worker suffering from a mid-life crisis. In the opening scene, he lays awake at night, fantasizing about his college buddies and the glamorous lives they are leading. Some of them are famous, some are rich, and all seem to be having better sex than him. He has also started to question whether his activism is the best way to make change. His young protege (and only employee), we learn, has recently quit, because he can have a bigger impact working in finance and donating his riches to charity. Over the course of the film, Brad conflates his personal envy and dissatisfaction with honest introspection, creating internal chaos that drives his son and everyone else around him mad over the course of the long weekend.
Essentially, both films take a problem both topical and timeless – how to make change in a cruel, indifferent world – and look at the internal struggle beneath it. Hopelessly optimistic at the start, Beatriz and Brad eventually discover that the world will not bend to them, no matter how hard they try or how earnest their intentions. Beatriz doesn’t change the billionaire’s mind, and Brad never quite gets a handle on his neurosis, and the closing shots find him still lying awake at night, struggling to be satisfied.
Liberal Americans, reeling from the Trump presidency, will find much to relate to in these characters. For many, the events of the last year are not just a setback for progressive causes but an existential crisis that has forced many of us to reconsider how best to make change, what kind of candidates they should be supporting, and even the very nature of American identity. The protagonists here represent an innocent, even naive citizenry blindsided by realities it had long sought to avoid. With their philosophical, soul-searching agendas, these films don’t seek to advance social change – they’re far from polemical – but raise questions about effective activism, personal contentment, and where – or if – the two intersect.
For White, these stories don’t represent a change in course, or a reaction to the Trump presidency (both were written before he was elected). In fact, he has been chronicling the limits of change for most of his career. It’s only now that they have become relevant. He specializes in characters devoted to causes bigger than themselves. In his more commercial projects, like Nacho Libre and The School of Rock, he celebrates his characters who see their vocation – Mexican wrestler and rock star, respectively – as a calling. The protagonist of School of Rock, Dewey Finn (Jack Black), speaks of rock and roll as if it could change the world. He is as committed to his cause as anyone.
In White’s less high-profile work, he has regarded this attitude with more skepticism. In Year of the Dog, Peggy (Molly Shannon) channels her grief over the loss of her pet into animal rights activism, culminating in an attack on an ex-boyfriend whose neglect led to the death of an animal. White surely knows and respects such activists, but he finds more value in analyzing their motives than simply celebrating their virtue. The same goes for his revered, prematurely-cancelled HBO series Enlightened, an insightful character study of a woman (Laura Dern) who suffered a public breakdown, rehabilitated herself through meditation and self-help, and returns to her old life as a new age “agent of change.”
These characters did not resonate with audiences during the Obama years, or even the late Bush era, when hope and change were valuable commodities. We didn’t want to scrutinize those idealistic notions. We just wanted to believe in them. But the world has caught up to White, and critical analysis of earnest intentions is now widespread among the left, or anyone blindsided by Trump’s victory in 2016.
Still, there are other reasons his recent work, despite their perceptiveness about our political moment, haven’t become bigger hits (Beatriz made only $7 million, and Brad’s Status will make even less). They value contradiction and complexity over single-mindedness, a noble artistic goal that may undercut any attempt at commercial success. Talking about Enlightened with The Believer in 2014, White said, “My affinity is with Amy [the main character], I see the arrogant side of her, too, and the narcissism that comes with that I see in myself…if I had made Amy a little bit more of a hero, then maybe it would’ve gotten a bigger audience, but I also think that would’ve undercut what I was trying to do.”
In an era of fierce tribalism, many viewers may be simply looking to see themselves onscreen, not to see those archetypes subverted and criticized, even when done so with such genuine curiosity. His characters are admirably earnest and painfully vulnerable, and we toggle between finding them heroic and grating. Any of us who look honestly at ourselves would be struck with similar contradictions, but perhaps an authentic, untidy look at our own complicated lives is not what we want these days. This isn’t the message we seem to be craving right now, but then again, this isn’t the world we want either.