This Is a Movie Review: Brad’s Status

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CREDIT: Jonathan Wenk/Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Shazi Raja, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson

Director: Mike White

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: R for A Few Disconcertingly Random F-Bombs

Release Date: September 15, 2017 (Limited)

Generally when writing a review, I avoid discussing issues of representation. That is not to say that that topic should not be avoided entirely, just that a review is not the ideal place for it. I believe that all stories are worth telling and need to be accepted on their own terms to truly understand them. But occasionally, representation is a focal theme in the stories that make it to the big screen, and in those cases, it would be imprudent to ignore it. Brad’s Status is one such movie.

In the most compelling possible interpretation, Brad’s Status is a horror film about extreme middle class neurosis. The score is filled with foreboding strings and heavy piano that contrast but also simultaneously complement the reliably blue skies. Brad Sloan’s (Ben Stiller) life probably should not be as intensely overwhelming as it is, but the status-conscious brain is a universe unto itself.

Brad’s existential crisis coincides with a college tour for his son Troy (Austin Abrams), who is smart enough to potentially get into Harvard but is uncertain enough about his future such that he doesn’t remember the correct date for his admissions interview. Staying on top of your kids during the college search is stressful enough, but on top of all that, Brad is deeply burdened by questions of how his success measures up with the rest of the world. When he thinks of his own college buddies he has lost touch with, he inevitably frets over how they have all exceeded him in terms of material wealth and influence. He remembers his own young adult idealism, and how his plans to change the world have not really borne fruit, even though he now runs his own nonprofit.

If this all sounds like White Straight Cisgender Male First World Problems: The Movie to you, it is worth noting that Brad’s privilege to complain as much as he does is called out quite searingly and clear-headedly by a female POC character. This is crucial, and effective. Those who are looking for more diverse representation in their films might reasonably say, “Sure, Brad’s Status takes white male bullshit to task, but it’s still about the white male bullshitter.” To which I would respond, I’m pretty sure this movie agrees with your sentiment and might in a weird way want you to dismiss it.

Regardless of how it works in terms of representation, Brad’s Status is an enlightening dramatization of the dangers of assumption, especially when you assume the best AND the worst. Chances are that your successful friends’ lives are not as picture-perfect as they seem. And chances are that they are not completely the opposite either. But you’ll never know either way unless you reach out and listen. Unfortunately for Brad, even when he does reach out, living inside his own head remains impossible to escape.

Brad’s Status is Recommended If You Like: Mad Men, Enlightened, White Male Navel Gazing, Criticism of White Male Navel Gazing

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Silver Flyer Cards

This Is a Movie Review: With ‘Beatriz at Dinner,’ Salma Hayek Ain’t Taking No Guff From Racist John Lithgow

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This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, David Warshofsky, Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, John Early

Director: Miguel Arteta

Running Time: 83 Minutes

Rating: R for Verbal Knifeplay

Release Date: June 9, 2017 (Limited)

What would you do if you have had a chance encounter with the person who represents all that you oppose? I imagine that many people would feel quite strongly when responding to this question but also that it would produce a number of disparate, potentially conflicting answers. Beatriz at Dinner, the latest collaboration from the Chuck & Buck team of writer Mike White (School of Rock, HBO’s Enlightened) and director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids), fundamentally understands this tension, with conviction in its ideals and uncertainty about how to live by them.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a goat-owning masseuse/healer who makes a house call to her wealthy client Cathy (Connie Britton). When her car breaks down, she finds herself stuck at Cathy and her husband’s Grant’s (David Warshofsky) fancy dinner party. Cathy is happy to have Beatriz there, as she considers her family ever since she helped her daughter through cancer treatment. But Beatriz is culturally light years away from client’s friends and colleagues. Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker are right in their cluelessly arrogant upper class wheelhouses. (Sample dialogue: “I love psychic stuff.”) And then there is real estate mogul Doug Strutt, brought to gloriously, hideously racist life by John Lithgow.

Comparisons between Strutt and a certain current world leader are inevitable, among perhaps both his detractors and his supporters. But it is worth noting that Lithgow’s performance is as far as can be from crudity, in terms of style if not so much substance. His default presence makes him a natural at playing oddly trustworthy authority figures. He has a hint of eccentricity – not so much that he ought to be dismissed, but just enough that he is allowed to get away with it. That reputation is ripe for subversion, as in the NBC sitcom Trial & Error, where his eccentricity verges on bumbling idiocy, or here, where it is a cover for plain evil.

While Lithgow’s performance is impressive in the most expected ways, Hayek’s is fascinating for how surprisingly, and occasionally even bafflingly, Beatriz behaves. But there are not really any logical inconsistencies here, as there is no blueprint for how to act in this situation. Beatriz believes that she recognizes Strutt as the developer who destroyed her Mexican community, and so she viciously chews him in front of the whole party. In this game of chess, she may have sacrificed her queen too early, but perhaps it is all part of her strategy. She bobs and weaves, offering up apologies, or feigning them, or mixing legitimate apologies in with lip service. In the meantime, she gathers up evidence to potentially prove Strutt’s misdeeds. But to what end? This is a man who boasts of skirting, or even running roughshod over, the law.

Responding to this moral vacuum requires counterintuitive behavior, which inspires a career-best performance from Hayek but puts the film on shaky narrative ground. The story ultimately becomes just as untethered as Beatriz, and accordingly it cannot really figure out how to conclude. Should it go in for the kill and ramp up the intensity, or should it settle for the moral victory? It offers up both versions, which is a little frustrating, but the straightforward viciousness is fun while it lasts.

Beatriz at Dinner is Recommended If You Like: Enlightened, Evil John Lithgow, Clapping Back

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Aperitifs for Destruction