“Brad’s Status” is both a Mike White film and a Ben Stiller film, and a winning combination that turns out to be. The movie centers on a self-pitying, privileged white guy who frets incessantly about being poorer than his old college friends.
His potentially unwatchable midlife crisis becomes an astutely funny human comedy.
It’s the second film (after “Year of the Dog”) directed by White, whose screenplay credits include “Chuck & Buck,” “School of Rock” and “Beatriz at Dinner.” White again blends discomfort with heart and explores themes of being an outsider and entitlement.
Stiller, in unease mode, plays Brad, a 47-year-old nonprofit-group founder who lives in upper-middle-class comfort in Sacramento. Brad has a kind wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), who works in government. The couple have a talented musician son, Troy (Austin Abrams). It’s a fine life, but Brad considers it inadequate.
In voiceover, Brad obsessively compares himself to four college buddies: Craig (Michael Sheen), now a celebrity political pundit; Jason (Luke Wilson), a hedge-fund biggie; Billy (Jemaine Clement), a retired tech mogul; and Nick (played by White), a Hollywood honcho.
Brad jealously envisions their perfect lives; White presents these thoughts as daydreamy fantasies.
Most of the story unfolds during an East Coast college-touring trip taken by neurotic Brad and low-key Troy.
At Harvard, Brad makes a scene when Troy, due to a mix-up, is denied an on-site interview. Boiling, Brad contacts his old college friends, hoping to use their A-list status to pull strings.
Reconnecting with the men, Brad learns that they aren’t quite the success stories he’s believed them to be.
Another dose of reality comes from Ananya (Shazi Raja), Troy’s Harvard-student friend. The young woman, who has roots in India, tells Brad to stop pitying his advantaged self.
The film lacks the smoothness and grace of movies by director Miguel Arteta — whose White collaborations include, most recently, the above-cited “Beatriz” — as well as the cynical edge of Noah Baumbach’s movies, which also have featured Stiller in self-absorbed form.
White gets excessive with voice-over. Brad tells us things that, thanks to Stiller’s nuanced performance, we already know.
Yet White has a distinctive way of venturing into creepy places while at the same time treating the characters compassionately; we care even as we wince. Like Alexander Payne, White delivers emotion without sentimentality.
The film succeeds as a smart satire about privilege and as a social-media-age pleaser that sympathizes with, as well as skewers, the world’s Brads.
Stiller portrays agitation and resentment disturbingly and intensely. He also gives Brad — who, at one point, becomes jealous of his own son — essential humanity. With help from Dvorak and some nice father-son moments, this quality allows Brad to appreciate what truly matters.
Among the supporting cast, Abrams shines as Brad’s long-suffering son, while Sheen’s Craig, combining smarm and charm, is terrifically horrid.
Starring: Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen
Written and directed by: Mike White
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes