Mike White’s Sermonizing College-Admissions Critique in “Brad’s Status”
It ’s one thing to discuss or debate a movie, another to sense that the movie’s purpose is to spark that discussion. The American college-admissions process is weird and skewed, and, as in most systems, the gaming that it invites is played mainly with money—those who have it find ways to buy advantages for their children. This is reflected in the number of fine colleges that, as reported in a recent Times study, have more students from the top one per cent than from the bottom sixty. This rigged system is the subject of “Brad’s Status,” the new film written and directed by Mike White, which is less a drama than a series of talking points given bright and shiny identities through the actors’ engaging personalities and White’s wry and pointed dialogue.
The main character of the film, Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller), isn’t a high-school student who’s applying to college but an applicant’s father. Brad’s son, Troy (Austin Abrams), is a bright, talented, somewhat introverted, and unassuming high-school senior in Sacramento, California. Together, father and son are going on a college tour to Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts. Brad is a former journalist who now runs a tiny nonprofit that matches grant applicants with relevant grant-giving organizations. His wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), works for the state government of California (that’s why the family moved there). The family is securely “lower-upper-middle class,” to borrow a notion from George Orwell; but Brad has grown miserable about his life, and, especially, about his place in the world.
A star in college (he’d dreamed of Yale but gone to Tufts), he ended up at his tiny operation when his journalistic career fizzled out with the contraction of print media and the difficulty of sustaining a Web site. His friends from school have made it big, whether in finance, movies, tech, or punditry—they’re rich and famous, and they’ve stopped answering his e-mails and inviting him to events. What’s more, they also appear to be living sybaritically, and Brad contrasts their rounds of pleasure with his own happy and loving but sedate marriage; he’s got the beginnings of a twenty-year itch, or, in other words, a midlife crisis. All of this is conveyed in a series of interior monologues, illustrated with flashbacks and fantasy sequences, which, for all their evocation of subjectivity and an inner life, are siloed off from each other and from the stuff of life—ideas, experiences, opinions, tastes, desires. White (who also gives himself a brief cameo, in the role of a famous director) doesn’t get anywhere near the intricacy, the knottiness, the mixed emotions and loamy tangles that distinguish people from characters; he sticks to the level of index-card traits and PowerPoint phrases.
Brad also seems weirdly isolated from Troy, even though he’s an engaged and devoted father. White seems to have no idea how to depict Troy, besides lending his stereotypical adolescent sullenness a terse, if insubstantial, intelligence. Troy’s a gifted musician as well as an excellent student; in the course of the trip, where the first stop is Harvard, Troy tells Brad that his guidance counsellor thinks he has a good chance of getting in wherever he applies—including Harvard. But (avoiding spoilers), due to a screw-up, Troy won’t get an interview at the Harvard admissions office, and Brad takes matters into his own hands. He contacts an estranged old friend named Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), a best-selling author who teaches at Harvard, and asks him to pull strings. Craig warmly agrees and invites him to dinner for a scene that’s rich in the promise of reconciliation—the friends with each other and Brad with his life.
Though Brad frets that he might be investing too much of his own, yes, status in Troy’s collegiate prestige and secured future success, the movie doesn’t actually pivot on their relationship or even on Brad’s own view of it. He doesn’t have much of a view of it. At Harvard, however, Brad does make some pointedly oblivious remarks to Troy, telling him, “You’re a white kid from the suburbs without a sob story,” and adding, “We’re the underdogs here.” The lines seem calculated to get viewers to throw things at the screen; they’re all the odder for being dropped into the middle of the film, like a skull and crossbones plastered on a blank mask. True to form for the film, Troy doesn’t respond; rather, White puts the response into the mouth of another character, a Harvard student named Ananya (Shazi Raja), who is no less of an emblematic stereotype than the perspective to which she responds.
The center of the film is an incidental conversation between Brad and Ananya, a friend of Troy’s who graduated from his high school a few years ahead of him. Ananya, whose family is from India, is the movie’s only dramatically significant nonwhite character, and her role is to give Brad guilt and a sense of perspective. Ananya admires Brad’s work with his organization—work that he has come to view with regret and dismissive self-loathing—and is planning her own career in the nonprofit sector. But when she asks him for career advice, what he tells her is to forget about nonprofits—to “make a lot of money” and then “do what you want with it.” He explains why, and his reasoning runs from the indignities of asking the wealthy for donations to his social inferiority among his former peers. Instead, she compares the unrelieved poverty that she has seen in India with the comfort of Brad’s life, and tells him that he’s voicing “white privilege, male privilege, first-class problems,” adding, “You’re doing just fine. You have enough.”
All true, of course—and all complicated enough to merit more than a one-liner. But the revelation feels detached from any examination of Brad’s life experience, or of what motivates his fretful concern with his status—is he an embittered liberal, a closet conservative, a detached cynic? The journalism he wrote—what was it? The donors and the beneficiaries he matches—who are they? Where does he live? What kind of high school does Troy attend? Why does Brad seem to know so little about Troy’s aptitudes and his successes? We never find out, because White isn’t imagining people, or characters; he’s imagining talking points and slogans. The flipness, the isolation, the casual detachment and blank simplicity with which White sermonizes to his viewers suggests the utter absence of observation and of introspection that went into the movie. (Another hint is in the realm of its characters’ artistic activity and ambitions—its scenes of musical performance are laughably oblivious.) Whatever may be personal about “Brad’s Status,” and whatever may be rooted in actual experience, they are filtered out with a sort of cowed guardedness.