Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.
A pretentious, showy life is an empty life;
a plain and simple life is a full life.
Proverbs 13:7 (The Message)
Then I observed all the work and ambition motivated by envy. What a waste! Smoke. And spitting into the wind.
Ecclesiastes 4:4 (The Message)
If you have ever sunk into a funk while thinking about your more successful friends, you might find writer-director Mike White’s film therapeutic, as well as enjoyable. Ben Stiller is outstanding as middle-aged Brad Sloan, whose voice we hear throughout the film dismissing his own achievements because he has not reached the wealth, status, or fame of the friends of his college days. Head of a small non-profit agency that he founded, Brad lives with his loyal wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and teenage son Troy (Austin Abrams) in a lovely home in Sacramento. The occasion for what amounts to a midlife crisis is Brad’s trip to the Boston area in search of a suitable college. Brad had thought of his own alma mater Tuffs, but is pleasantly surprised that the boy has been deemed eligible for Harvard because he is such a talented musician. Thus, most of the action unfolds on and near the latter’s prestigious campus.
Brad is depressed because, worried how he can come up with tuition money for the more expensive Harvard, he has been day dreaming about the more successful lives of his college pals. Jason (Luke Wilson) is a wealth hedge-fund manager. Billy (Jemaine Clement) became a high-tech CEO, wallowing in so much money that he decided to retire, at 40, to bask in the sunshine and beach bunnies of Maui. Nick has become a Hollywood film director, his stylish mansion worthy of being featured in Architectural Digest. His glib friend Craig (Michael Sheen) became a pundit on political issues, his best-selling books and TV show leading to the invitation to teach at Harvard.
Even near the beginning of their trip Brad’s lower status is pushed in his face when at the airport he tells his son that he will upgrade their seat from the crowded tourist section, only to have the ticket agent turn him down because he has purchased their economy priced seats through an on-line site. As they board the plane Brad gazes longingly into the upper-class section where the passengers are being served wine and sit in wide seats. A flight attendant spotting him enviously gazing into the First Class/Business Section, quickly cuts off his view by closing the partition.
At Harvard the pair are shocked to learn that Troy messed up on the date of his appointment. Despite Brad’s insistence, the secretary says that Troy cannot get in to see the Dean of Admissions now, that instead he will have to meet with a rep back in California. Brad’s loud objections embarrass the boy. They leave, with Brad assuring his son that he will somehow get him the interview, and Troy just wishing that they can return home as soon as possible.
The “somehow” involves Brad calling up his old friends in the hope that they might have a connection with Harvard. During his conversations his self-esteem drops event further when he learns that he has been omitted from their network, that he was not invited to the wedding of one of them. Eventually he is able to call Craig, the celebrity teaching occasionally at the university. Craig agrees to help Troy by asking the famous music professor, who had drawn the boy to consider the university, to give Troy an audition the next day. We should also mention that during his conversations some of Brad’s illusions about the great success of his friends are punctured, their revelations of the reality of their situations falling far short of his envious imaginings.
Brad’s status with his son quickly skyrockets. That night the pair eat dinner with two women students, Maya and Ananya, slightly older friends of Brad from California. As we will note in the next paragraph in a little more detail, this will lead to an encounter that will begin to change Brad’s outlook, and thus his life.
Back in their room the now relieved Troy looks forward to the next day. Brad, unable to sleep, goes out alone for a nightcap. At a nightspot he spies one of his son’s friends, the idealistic Ananya (Shazi Raja), who, noticing him, comes over to talk. After Brad complains about his life and how it falls so short of those of his friends, Ananya jolts him with the declaration, better, the accusation, “You still think the world was made for you.” She and Maya are members of a minority, so she is better able to see and explain that his problems are those of a privileged white male. He has little concept of the struggle for the bare necessities that most people in the world face every day. She ends her little lecture with, “Trust me, you have enough.”
It will yet be a while before Brad can trust her (words), or to accept his wife’s words that she had spoken to him when they had parted back in California, “Be happy. Be present.” For most of the film Brad had been neither happy nor present, so wrapped up had he been in his envy and regrets. It will take more thought and a face to face encounter with the smug Craig over dinner before the troubled Brad can let go of all the things that hold him back from being truly present in spirit with his son.
In the last, heart-warming scenes of the film when he says the words of admiration and praise that every child longs to hear from a father, we know that Brad’s status is ever so much better than when we first met him. Like every person, he will still need to struggle against slipping back into negativism, because our acquisitive society will be spending billions to convince him that he ought to envy his more prosperous friends and neighbors of their latest gadget or beauty/youth-enhancer because that is what life is all about, spending and acquiring bigger and better things that will make others envy him.
As in the scripts he wrote for Beatriz at Dinner, Nacho Libre, and School of Rock, Mike White provides insights as well as laughs in this film. For religious leaders this little visual parable will be useful during the Thanksgiving season or for a Stewardship Sunday. Brad throughout most of the film is like many people who have little gratitude for what they have, always wanting more, and indeed, believing that they are entitled to more. If he were a spiritual person, the Psalms with so many verses of thanksgiving, and the Book of Ecclesiastes with its author’s awareness of the shallow and ephemeral duration of pleasures, could serve as a tonic. Brad’s story of arriving at a state equivalent to what his wife enjoins (“Be happy. Be present”) is told in secular terms, but for people of faith, his too is a spiritual story in which can be seen the invisible hand of God at work. Working even through the arrogant Craig (without whom troy could not have connected with the music professor and thence the Dean), and, of course, the perceptive Ananya, confronting him with truth. Once more a little-ballyhooed film proves to be worth at least a dozen super hero blockbusters.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the November issue of Visual Parables.