Ben Stiller is the kind of actor whose default expression is around 5 on the face pain scale, and that tenuous middle ground between hurt and happiness is the bittersweet spot in which writer-director Mike White’s masterfully handled seriocomic character study “Brad’s Status” operates.
Recalling the wincingly funny neurotic rabbit holes of Albert Brooks’ best work, not to mention White’s own previous heartfelt gems about well-meaning fumblers (“Year of the Dog,” HBO’s “Enlightened”), this bitingly amusing, ultimately emotional story of a dad barely managing an envy-driven midlife crisis — as he shepherds his son on a tour of colleges — has the potential to strike a demographic chord broader than you’d think a white guy’s problems would. That’s because White’s approach to satire is always flecked with piercing empathy and a keen sense of the real world around his usually myopic worriers.
Brad Sloan (Stiller) is by any standard definition of the term a successful human being. A Sacramento-based husband to a loving, working wife named Melanie (Jenna Fischer), Brad runs a non-profit that connects donors to charities, and is immensely proud of their musical prodigy son Troy (Austin Abrams, “Paper Towns”), who’s on the right kind of track to score acceptance to a great college.
It’s on a trip to Boston with Troy to check out institutions like Harvard and Tufts that what really occupies Brad’s 47-year-old mind — narrated for us as running commentary throughout the film — takes full flight: the crippling sense that he didn’t amount to anything. Financially, that is. (An early, cringingly funny scene has Brad in bed, worrying openly about money to Melanie, and inching ever so closely to callous speculation about what they’ll inherit from certain deaths.)
Brad’s concerns, though, are a view that only makes sense when he deploys the prism of how his younger, the-world-is-my-oyster college self would see things. Invariably, that means comparing his life’s non-flashy arc toward suburban comfort to the soaring, cashing-out trajectories of his old crew of best friends, seen primarily in “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”-like flashes as a taunting daymare in Brad’s consciousness: the big-time Hollywood director (White), the jet-setting hedge fund exec (Luke Wilson), the already-retired tech giant (Jemaine Clement) frolicking on a beach with bikini girls, and the celebrity politico (Michael Sheen) with a TV pundit career. To the world, Brad asks in his head, “When did we fall out of love with each other?”
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What transpires, scored with occasionally slicing violins by Mark Mothersbaugh, is a mental travelogue of perceived slights, mood swings and parental hope as Brad tries to be the ultimate supportive dad while wrestling with thoughts and behavior that don’t always present him in the best light. In Boston, a missed appointment with Harvard spurs Brad to play angry advocate for his son with the admissions people (which only embarrasses Troy, who loves his dad yet wants the trip to be chill) but also inspires him to test how good his connections still are with the college pals he fears have written him off.
If this all sounds like a Caucasian privilege pity party, White knows that, too. Though he paints Brad compassionately, he plants a well-timed truth bomb with the appearance of a bright, engaging Harvard attendee and former classmate of Troy’s named Annaya (a pitch-perfect Shazi Raja, “Salvation”). Over dinner, her clear-eyed idealism and critical faculties (and, realistically, her attractiveness) briefly pull Brad out of his head, until, asked for advice, his confessional nature regarding What to Expect From Life incurs a welcome reality-check earful from a young woman of color.
Later, an anticipated reunion with Sheen’s character — perfectly tense, brittlely comedic, thanks to Sheen’s hilariously coddled smarm — and a touching scene between Brad and Troy in their hotel room also do their part to further clarify for Brad the way forward.
Needless to say, this kind of thing wouldn’t work without a perfectly-cast Brad, and Stiller is that, turning in one of his richest performances. The punching bag of humiliation comedies past has aged into a more nuanced figure of blinkered melancholy, the point-and-guffaw replaced by a grimacing ouch you instantly recognize, whether in yourself or others.
When Stiller cries at a concert performance of Dvorak’s “Humoresque,” you believe the poignant comedy of someone grappling with hopelessly conflicting epiphanies, and whether to smell the roses, or curse the decision not to plant lilies. Abrams is wonderfully present, too, as the achingly normal son who slowly realizes he needs to problem-solve his dad as well as his college future.
With movies experiencing a glaring dearth in quietly human, perceptively satirical comedy, the appearance of “Brad’s Status” is something of a breath of fresh air. Even if that atmosphere is the occasionally sour odor of regret, the sharply drawn, considerate nature of White’s approach allows us to enjoy the tang and sweetness simultaneously.