When Will We Learn?

Brad’s Status, which is the new movie written and directed by Mike White, features a neurotic narrator named Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) who must confront his choices when his son Troy (Austin Abrams) and he fly from Sacramento to Boston for his son Troy’s college campus tours.

This movie, as far as it goes, is a somewhat engaging account of aging. Brad enlists a college friend when Troy confuses his Harvard interview days. As he helps Troy with this and a Tufts interview, Brad confronts his cynicism and choices by rejecting conventional signs of success, which his college friends’ lives exhibit, and accepting his son’s sense of his life. 

The problem, however, is that this movie is incomplete in at least two related ways. The most obvious is that it ends before the conclusion. Brad and Troy have an intimate moment in their hotel room when Troy reminds his father that he loves Brad, which Troy seems to suggest should be the standard by which Brad assesses his choices and life. From this scene, the movie quickly moves to its ending, which can’t be that simple and, as such, is less interesting than, for example, the implications of such standards for daily choices.

This movie is also incomplete in its critique of Brad’s self-absorption, which is challenged by the female characters. Brad’s wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer), in for example an opening scene, objects to Brad’s obsessive rumination about their financial future, including his recommendation that she should discuss her parents’ estate plans with them before they die. She first tells him that she loves him and and then that he should “shut the fuck up” and go to sleep.

A more explicit, and still incomplete, critique comes from Ananya (Shazi Raja), a current Harvard student and fellow musician whom Troy knows. At dinner, Anaya invites Brad and Troy to join her friends and her at a nearby bar. They initially decline because Troy is too young, but Brad later slips from their hotel room and finds Ananya and her friends. After listening to Brad’s account of his cynicism, Ananya argues that he is oblivious to his white privilege even as she should describe it as a middle class male privilege as well.

Neither Melanie nor Ananya seems to suffer from the same cynicism, which could be an alternative. At the same time, they’re never on the screen long enough, or without a man or talking about something other than a man, as Alison Bechdel and Liz Wallace taught us to ask, for us to know.

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