Mike White’s squirm quasi-comedy Brad’s Status begins with the title character (Ben Stiller) in bed, mulling over the inadequacy of his life. He considers — in voice-over — his closest college friends, whom fortune has favored: a Hollywood director (White), an entrepreneur who has already retired to Hawaii (Jemaine Clement), a business titan (Luke Wilson) with his own plane, and celebrity TV commentator and author (Michael Sheen). Brad, in contrast, has a modest web business that matches nonprofit foundations and needy beneficiaries, while his wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), is a cheerful government do-gooder. He has a nice, modest house on a nice, modest street in nice, modest Sacramento. But he feels as if he’s surrounded by “beta males.” He feels left behind. Everywhere he goes, the world rubs his nose in his failures. Brad’s status is low and dropping.
A few years ago, Stiller directed and starred in a grandiosely sentimental adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Brad’s Status could be a grim, 21st-century meditation on the same themes. In this case, the protagonist’s fantasies of potency are brief and end in a deepening sense of impotence. Brad walks around seething, and Stiller is a good seether. He has made a career of playing men with colossal chips on their shoulders. He has a zest for humiliation. Maybe he fits the role of Brad too well. He’s so convincing that he’s difficult to watch.
So is the movie, though on balance it’s very fine. The bulk of Brad’s Status is a trip Brad takes with his 17-year-old son, Troy (Austin Abrams), to Boston to look at colleges. It’s fraught. Well, with Brad, everything is fraught. On the plane, he fairly writhes as he walks past first-class and the people who’ve done better than he has. The hotel is … not luxe. He went to Tufts — he didn’t get into Harvard — but he learns that his son has a shot at the Ivy League and is alternately thrilled (because it reflects on him) and jealous. Troy will have access to the kind of young women who are now out of Brad’s range. But he’s invested enough that when Troy mixes up the time of his interview and Harvard won’t reschedule, Brad decides to call in favors from his famous friends — with gritted teeth and shame.
As he proved in his first film, Chuck and Buck, and the TV series Enlightened, White has empathy for people on outside looking in, and Brad’s Status is his most naked — and grim — exploration of envy yet. Not that there’s much to explore. Brad is treated worse than his wealthy and powerful old friends. The seas do not part for him. And that’s not going to change unless he strikes it rich, and this isn’t the sort of movie where he’s going to strike it rich. Most of the film is abrasively un-transcendent. Even if you relate to Brad, you’ll probably end up wishing he’d save it for his shrink instead of a paying audience. There seems to be nothing in his life except self-pity and anger and woulda shoulda coulda. His son — a talented musician and composer — is in some ways a stranger. He never talks about the meaning of his work or the goodness of his wife. Well, he does in one sense. He thinks her goodness undermined his ambition and kept him from selling out. He wishes he’d sold out!
White digs himself out of this no-win premise the only way an artist who hasn’t sold out could: by giving Brad a different and deeper and more productive kind of humiliation. You’ll have to learn what happens for yourself, but I will say his old pals turn out not to be entirely enviable. He’s introduced to a dazzlingly talented friend of Troy’s named Ananya (Shazi Raja) who plays in a Harvard music group and has a different perspective on his misery. He goes to a performance of an especially lyrical Dvorak piece — and if there’s one thing that reminds us of the smallness of our selves and grandeur of our souls it’s great art.
Brad’s Status has the compression of a first-person short story, but the characters who aren’t Brad still come through. Raja plays her big scene with Stiller just right, so that we don’t know what she’s thinking until the moment he does — although the signs were there all along. Luke Wilson has a brief but startling scene (Brad reaches him by phone), and Jemaine Clement captures — in a few seconds while walking on a Hawaiian beach — the essence of a man you do not ever want to know. Michael Sheen is peerless at playing a once-bright man whose glibness has eaten into his soul. Austin Abrams shows how Troy’s seeming diffidence both protects him his dad’s neuroses and cuts down on distractions from his art.
As for Stiller, Brad’s discomfort seems so deep inside his comfort zone that I don’t know what I think of the performance — except that it gave me the creepy-crawlies. He’s scary enough to make me look in the mirror and say, “Please don’t ever let me be that guy.”