Thursday, September 28, 2017

Brad's Status

Brad's Status stars Ben Stiller as Brad Sloan, a middle-aged entrepreneur settled in Sacramento, who runs some sort of non-profit. He is married to Melanie (Jenna Fischer), who has some sort of government job. They have a 17-year old son Troy (Austin Abrams), who is apparently a very good student and musician. Brad and Troy fly to Boston for Troy's college admission interviews at Harvard and Tufts. The interplay between father and son stands out as one of the film's dramatic highpoints.

Meanwhile, Brad suffers from serious status anxiety (presumably exacerbated by his son's growing up, which highlights how he and his wife are now in middle age and so will not accomplish much more with their lives or - what seems to amount to much the same thing - make a lot more money in their careers.)

In particular, Brad keeps comparing himself with several of his former college classmates, all of whom have been more materially successful than he has been. One is even on the cover of Architectural Digest. Another has worked in the White House, is a published author, and is recognized by strangers in restaurants. Another is already retired and lives in Hawaii  Etc. In contrast, Brad worries not only that he has not made a lot of money but that he and his wife have settled for mediocrity. Brad's anxieties are reinforced by learning that he was not invited to one wealthy and prominent classmate's wedding in LA - presumably because he is not in the same league of wealth and prominence. His status anxieties are reinforced again by learning that his favorite Tufts professor died recently and that one of his more prominent classmates gave the eulogy, while he was not even informed. The result is that, throughout the trip, Brad keeps tormenting himself and behaving in ways which perplex and annoy others - including Troy, who wonders whether his father is having a "nervous breakdown."

The lesson, of course, is that Brad's anxieties are rooted in reality. His classmates have largely done better, both in wealth, and prominence than he has. To the extent that that matters they represent success, and in comparison he has failed to make much of his life. The question, however, is to what extent that really matters or should matter. There is some evidence that the others' successes may not be all they appear to be. Even the wealthy and the prominent cannot completely escape the vicissitudes of life like illness and addiction. Even without that comparison, however, Brad has a good marriage, a happy wife, and a talented son - both of whom love him. Should that be enough?

The film forces us to ask ourselves what is enough? Can we be satisfied with a good life or are we forever sentenced to compare ourselves with those who seem to enjoy a fabulous life?

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