Writer-director Mike White’s films are so insightful about the human condition, gently mocking but ultimately empathetic, that it’s got to make a lot of fellow filmmakers a little envious.
His latest film, “Brad’s Status,” won’t help.
White explicitly takes on status anxiety and jealousy in his terrific new comedy-drama, starring Ben Stiller as an upper-middle-class dad who can’t help but compare his ordinary life to his old college buddies, all now one-percenters. A white male with a midlife crisis isn’t exactly new material for a movie, but White’s screenplay and Stiller’s performance are so alive to both the silliness and the sadness of Brad’s predicament that it becomes something fresh and piercing.
Brad’s life — a nice house in Sacramento, his own socially-conscious nonprofit, a doting wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and brilliant son Troy (Austin Abrams) — would be the envy of most people, something he’s occasionally aware of. But he lays awake at night scrolling through social media and imagining the wonderful lives of his old friends, like political consultant and cable news regular (Michael Sheen), hedge fund billionaire (Luke Wilson), or even a wildly successful Hollywood director, played, in a nice wink, by White himself.
At 47, Brad fears that he’s plateaued, that a life spent fighting for worthy causes instead of getting rich has been a waste of time. Brad’s angst has echoes of White’s other recent work, including “Beatriz at Dinner” and HBO’s”Enlightened,” which also question the value of doing good in a world that seems engineered to reward selfishness.
“Brad’s Status” follows Brad and Troy on a weekend trip to Boston to check out colleges. Like many a Madisonian, White knows that for the middle-aged, there’s no place to feel more middle-aged-y than around the fresh young faces on a college campus.
Troy, a musical prodigy, turns out to have a pretty good shot at getting into Harvard, which triggers in Brad both pride and a new flavor of envy. His conflicting emotions are conveyed by an ongoing inner monologue, giving a gnawing violin score, which vacillates between grandiose pronouncements and bitter self-doubt. In one stream of consciousness, Brad fantasizes about his son’s future success, then fantasizes that his son’s future success will make Brad feel insecure, then fantasizes about his son becoming a failure. And then he hates himself for fantasizing about that.
Stiller pays the bills with his turns in more mainstream comedies (“Meet the Parents,” “A Night at the Museum”), but in indie comedy-dramas like “Greenberg” and “While We’re Young,” he’s excelled at playing self-aggrandizing, self-lacerating neurotics who can’t escape their own heads. So he’s perfect here as Brad, and White keeps the camera in close to capture all the warring emotions within Brad.
Watching “Brad’s Status” is like reading a good short story, and the film eschews much in the way of narrative for a series of closely-observed encounters. The film at times is pretty funny, but it’s not big laughs, but low chuckles of recognition at Brad’s flailing attempts to accept his place in the world. Most of us have been in his shoes, but never quite expressed that anxiety as artfully or as wittily as this.