There’s a standout moment in “Brad’s Status” when Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) sits down at a bar with a college-aged woman less than half his age who puts him in his place. After he spends hours drunkenly whining about his life’s work at a non-profit, expressing concerns that he never gets enough respect, she offers a succinct rejoinder that bursts his bubble in an instant. The scene epitomizes the movie’s appeal: Writer-director Mike White’s screenplay juggles warmth with a caustic edge that doesn’t only put Brad in his place; it sums up the essence of Stiller’s performances, giving a slew of solipsistic characters the medicine they deserve.
In the process, it also consolidates Stiller’s recurring motifs into a deeper, more melancholic version. Trapped in his neuroses like so many Stiller man-children before him, Brad’s worried that he’ll never make the most of his potential, completely unaware that he’s doing just fine. White-people problems can be funny that way.
“Brad’s Status” understands this ongoing punchline without exploiting it. White’s movie is a heartfelt, genuine portrait of midlife frustrations that constantly threatens to devolve into a pithy cringe-comedy but never loses touch with its mature tone.
The scenario takes shape in straightforward terms: Gearing up to take his teen son Troy (Austin Abrams) on a tour of East Coast colleges, Brad wrestles with whether his upper-middle-class Sacramento life with wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) has reached its potential. “We aren’t poor,” his wife sighs, when Brad won’t shut up at night.
But Brad’s lost in the shadow of other people’s lives. In a recurring voiceover, he laments the successes of his former high-school pals and their seemingly perfect worlds: Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen) has become a popular TV pundit; Billy Wearslter (Jemaine Clement) made a fortune on a start-up and leads a hedonistic life on a tropical island in early retirement; Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson) is a fast-talking hedge-fund founder who zips around the country in a private jet; and Nick (White) has gone Hollywood.
For the bulk of the movie, all four men exist within the confines of Brad’s mind, as he imagines their trouble-free lives in idyllic contrast to his own drab routine. Complicating matters, he struggles to see the potential in his soft-spoken son’s transition into young adulthood without turning him into an object of envy as well.
As father and son make their way across campuses, much of Brad’s struggle unfolds in an overbearing voiceover that threatens to derail the movie with heavy-handedness early on. With time, however, that becomes the whole point — Brad’s so lost in the story of his pity party that it shields his ability to recognize his own successes. Stiller has played anxious variations on this role many times, but Brad’s a more grounded variation. He envisions himself in a carefree existence, but usually makes more sensible choices, and that bums him out.
On the verge of embarrassing his son when he fails to get an interview at Harvard, Brad instead phones in a favor from Fisher, setting the stage for a climactic sit-down between the old friends that forces them to confront their history together. There’s no major baggage there; instead, Brad’s simply tied up in feelings of resentment he can only address by merging the impressions of his old friend with the real McCoy. It’s fascinating to watch Stiller embody this conundrum while his character struggles to find the right words to express it.
The movie hums along at a gentle pace, content to amplify the intellectual nature of Brad’s challenges over any jarring twists in his trajectory. His fantasies keep evolving as he envisions himself in better places, while steadily coming to terms with the reality of his circumstances. It’s a sharp, contained statement on the aging process that unquestionably marks the sharpest of White’s slim directing credits.
While his writing career stretches across film (“Year of the Dog,” Miguel Arteta’s movies) and TV (“Enlightened”), “Brad’s Status” distills his filmmaking voice to a singular focus — a 40-something introvert on the verge of a nervous breakdown for no good reason. That central irony carries the movie through its rather inconsequential plot, and even as “Brad’s Status” doesn’t overextend its reach, Stiller gives the material a touching, soulful core.
Rather than building to some grand resolution, the climax arrives in the midst of a gorgeous orchestral performance that clarifies the emotion of the story. It’s no big spoiler to reveal that Brad realizes how living in the moment pays off a lot more than worrying about what might have been. Usually, Stiller plays frantic men dashing around in the hopes of achieving an elusive ideal. In “Brad’s Status,” one of them finally discovers some modicum of peace.
“Brad’s Status” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens nationwide on September 15.