Brad’s Status (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Some reviews will claim that in order to have a complete appreciation for the whip-smart comedy “Brad’s Status,” written and directed by Mike White, one would have to be middle-aged because the topics it tackles requires considerable life experience. But I say anybody who constantly checks in with themselves will be able to connect with and enjoy the film for its searing honesty and ability to remain in touch with both the humor and the drama of a situation depending on one’s mood, personality, or general perspective when it comes to how life works. This film is clearly made for observant viewers.
The titular character, played by Ben Stiller, is most unhappy as of late because he constantly finds himself dreaming forward and regretting the past, rarely choosing to be present in the now, appreciating the great things in his life, and relishing what he has accomplished thus far. Although I do not relate to Brad’s suffering, despite his neuroses, I recognized this character right away: he is a colleague at work, a stranger walking down the street, a family member who puts on a fake smile during reunions. I empathized with him, but I did not feel sorry for him. The material is interested in dissecting differences between seemingly similar emotions.
Stiller fits the role like a glove. Observe how he expertly navigates a series of thoughts and feelings, often in one sitting and in quick successions, that run across Brad’s face. Couple the performer’s craft with an energetic screenplay that courageously combines daydreams, flashbacks, and scalding reality in a blender, what results is a highly watchable, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful look at a privileged man who has everything he needs yet still finds himself wanting for more. He doesn’t exactly know why he craves more, it’s just that he does.
He claims he is envious of his former college friends (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Mike White) because they possess power, ludicrous amount money, women, and fame, but notice how Brad, someone so detail-oriented when it comes to his yearnings, fails to describe what he would actually do if he acquired such things. Why is this man creating the pandemonium in his mind? Does he find pleasure in putting himself through mental agony? Does he have a mood or mental disorder? Is it his way of coping with the fact that his son (Austin Abrams), a gifted musician, is soon moving away for university? I enjoyed that the writer-director is not afraid to introduce possibilities thereby making the work layered, consistently worthy of exploration from different angles.
Perhaps the best moments in this sharp and humane film involve the father looking at his son and weighing whether the boy in front of him would become competition, whether the boy would eventually make him feel small, insignificant, like a loser—just like the way his former friends “made” him feel throughout the years. It is during moments like these that “Brad’s Status” is at its bravest and most uncomfortable—which makes it so worthy of our time because it forces us to look inwards, recognize, and perhaps even come to terms with some of our own monsters.
Chuck & Buck (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charlie (Chris Weitz) receives a letter informing him that his childhood best friend’s mother has passed away. Even though Charlie has not seen Buck (Mike White) for over fifteen years, Charlie, along with his fiancée, Carlyn (Beth Colt), attends the funeral out of respect. However, things turns awkward very quickly when Buck, who seems fixated on acting like a child, gropes Chuck in the restroom sexually when the latter offers an embrace of comfort.
Written by Mike White, it is difficult what to make of “Chuck & Buck” because although humor runs through its veins, it is highly likely that the events that are happening are rooted in a childhood sexual trauma so intense, one of its participants does not know how to make sense of it and therefore unable to make a life for himself. It is easy and convenient to label Buck as weirdo, a walking request for a restraining order. After all, who withdraws all of his money, uproots his life, moves to Los Angeles, and lives in a motel just so he can spy on and stalk someone he believes to be his best friend?
White fits the role like a glove because his natural appearance of vulnerability balances nicely with his character’s occasional off-kilter behavior. And while there are times when I was scared for Chuck and Caryln’s safety, at the same time I could not help but care about Buck. I was concerned for him not because he acts like a child or he is deserving of pity but due to the fact that during a handful of scenes, we have a chance to understand that he means well.
Since his actions are almost always determined by patterns, the wrong person might stumble upon what he is up to, make a cursory judgment, and take action without the necessary background information. Partly, we wait for this character to be sent to jail or left for dead in a ditch.
Eventually, Buck decides to write and put on a play, in a theater directly in front of Chuck’s workplace, with hopes that the images will trigger Chuck’s memory and inspire him to want to be around Buck like when they were eleven years old. Buck hires Beverly (Lupe Ontiveros), the theater attendant, to cast and direct his play. Their relationship is arguably the heart of the picture. It is expertly executed because even though Beverly is initially motivated by good pay, a series of small but important scenes allow us to feel her passion for the work as well as the person who put the material on paper.
I appreciated that Buck and Beverly’s interactions are able to reach a fluidity and realism to them as would two strangers who want to get to know each other further for the positive things they can offer to one another. Conversely, the scenes that Buck and Carlyn share could have had more depth. While Caryln is likable, admirable even, because of her patience, there are times when I was bored by her. It seems like the script does not want her to come off as “mean.” But there is a difference between mean and practical. If someone keeps calling your phone every fifteen minutes and when you answer, he just hangs up, wouldn’t you feel compelled to alert the proper authorities?
“Chuck & Buck,” directed by Miguel Arteta, is ultimately about healing. It feels genuine because it is unafraid to shed light on the ugliness that one must to go through to take a step forward toward self-esteem and security. It is an uncomfortable experience at times but sometimes so is the struggle in moving on.