Writer-director Mike White has dabbled in mainstream studio entertainment (his screenplays for The School of Rock and, less happily, The Emoji Movie), but his specialty is that slipperier, spikier sub-genre: the comedy of discomfort. His debut behind the camera, Year of the Dog, and his late, great HBO series Enlightened, as well as three films he wrote, Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl and Beatriz at Dinner, were all squirm-inducing portraits of people stumbling — and sometimes sliding toward madness — in their quest for meaning.
White's work is deadpan, with sharp stabs of satire, but what distinguishes him from a Todd Solondz, for example, is his affection for his troubled protagonists — and, even more notably, his interest in their churning inner lives. Those qualities drive and define White's latest, Brad's Status, giving a jokey, rather conventional tale of middle-aged male anxiety unexpected resonance.
Starring Ben Stiller as a Sacramento suburbanite on a New England college tour with his high-achieving 17-year-old, the movie is less idiosyncratic than many of the filmmaker's previous efforts, from its ingratiating tone and broadly relatable father-son storyline to its A-list lead. But this isn't a case of an artist selling out — the film is sly and perceptive, overcoming a slightly underpowered middle section to sneak up on you in the final stretch. Minor as it may be, Brad's Status feels like further confirmation of White's singularity in the drab landscape of big-screen American comedy. He's always probing, pondering; here, as in much of his work, his tricky subject is the struggle to be both good and happy in a culture that's not necessarily conducive to either.
Brad (Stiller) has a management position at a non-profit; a smart, sweet wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer); and a son, Troy (Austin Abrams), who's a senior in high school and looks like a strong bet for the Ivy League thanks to his prodigious musical talent. Despite his good fortune, Brad is stressed about the future and plagued by feelings of inadequacy. In the amusing opening scene, he wakes Melanie in the middle of the night to agonize about money. "We're not poor, Brad," she sighs, rolling over.
That's little consolation for Brad, who appears to be in the throes of an existential crisis of sorts. He's about to take Troy to visit Harvard (the specter of that tuition would make anyone break out in hives), and the milestone of his son leaving home has him unsettled; there's an awkward gem of a scene in which he gawks at Troy in a towel, stunned by the seemingly overnight metamorphosis of boy into man.
But the main source of Brad's angst, as we learn from his voiceover, a roller-coaster interior monologue that soars and dips with his mood, is the fact that his college buddies are all now spectacularly wealthy — at least judging from their social media posts. Craig (Michael Sheen) is a D.C. politico and best-selling author frequently found pontificating on TV; Jason (Luke Wilson), a hedge fund bigshot, has a life — wife, kids, private plane — that's the picture of WASP perfection; Nick (played by White) is a successful director who just married his boyfriend, but didn't invite Brad; and tech superstar Billy (Jemaine Clement) is so rich he was able to retire to Maui, where he shares a house with two perennially bikini-clad beauties.
In a clever touch, White gives us glimpses of their ostensibly fabulous lives via Brad's envy-fueled fantasies. He also uses Brad's voiceover shrewdly, making us privy to the kind of petty, unflattering thoughts generally concealed behind tight smiles and casual shrugs. Those thoughts make Brad hard to like at times, but they also pull us in close to him; we feel the bruises to his ego as they accumulate.
At first it looks like Brad's Status is going to stick to a classic Ben-Stiller-comedy formula, in which his character endures a series of slights and mishaps, filling up, and then boiling over, with frustration. At the airport with Troy to catch a flight to Boston, Brad is turned away from the "priority line" because he has a silver, rather than gold, frequent-flyer card; his attempt to secure an upgrade to business class fails; and upon arriving at Harvard, they learn that Troy's interview has been canceled because of a date mix-up. But the film sidesteps expected comic payoffs, moving in a subtler direction: Brad's Status is about a man fighting through — rather than wallowing in — his narcissistic insecurities, trying to get to a place where he can look out at the world and see more than his own disappointed reflection.
For Brad, part of that process entails accepting that his son may be more talented than he is. In a scene of gently wincing humor and poignancy, he tells Troy not to be upset if he gets rejected from Yale (as Brad did himself back in the day); with great tact and a bit of trepidation, Troy breaks it to Brad that, according to his college counselor, he'll likely get in everywhere since the top schools need to fill slots in their orchestras. It's one of several instances of Brad projecting his own hang-ups onto Troy and Troy having to tiptoe around Brad's feelings. Among other things, Brad's Status is a portrait of plausibly clumsy parenting.
A turning point comes as father and son meet up with Ananya (Shazi Raja, very good), a former high-school classmate of Troy's who's now a student at Harvard and a member of the orchestra he has his sights on. Ravishing, bright and almost frighteningly self-possessed, Ananya is there to show Troy around, but ends up challenging Brad in surprising ways, calling him on his "white privilege, male privilege and first-world problems" when he vents his various grievances and misgivings. "I promise you, you have enough," she tells him, expanding the film's perspective and enriching it with a depth of thought that's rare among cheerfully complacent American comedies. Thankfully, the writer-director avoids making Ananya the wise woman of color who teaches the white guy a life lesson; she gives Brad an important reality check, but she has blinders and biases of her own.
If anything, White tends to stack the deck unnecessarily in favor of his protagonists. They're flawed, even dysfunctional, but most of the other people who populate his stories are worse, from the corporate drones in Enlightened to the capitalist monsters in Beatriz at Dinner to Sheen's smug egomaniac in this film. That can feel like a limitation in the filmmaker's worldview, or a lack of confidence that the viewer will stick with his beleaguered heroes and heroines unless they're surrounded by cartoonish antagonists.
With a star like Stiller in nearly every frame, White needn't have worried. This is the first of two fully rounded, finely shaded performances from Stiller in 2017 (the other is in Noah Baumbach's upcoming The Meyerowitz Stories, which premiered at Cannes), suggesting that this most reliable of comic performers is finally mining his dramatic talents to satisfying effect. He's well matched by Abrams, who pulls off the considerable feat of suggesting a fierce focus and drive beneath Troy's mumbly adolescent nonchalance.
White's direction is typically brisk and polished. He's not an ambitious stylist, but there's a looseness here that feels like a relief after the more affected symmetry of the compositions in Year of the Dog. The filmmaker makes lovely use of Mark Mothersbaugh's crisp, playful score — and especially of 19th-century Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's "Humoresque" in a stirring emotional climax reminiscent of the final scene of Kenneth Lonergan's maligned masterpiece Margaret.
Brad's Status is good enough to make you wish it were even better: tighter, bolder, sharper. But it's a droll, affecting movie — and, in its exploration of a man's fantasies of success and fears of failure, his trudge through the weeds of pessimism toward optimism, a distinctly American one.
Production companies: Plan B Entertainment, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment
Distributor: Annapurna Pictures
Cast: Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jermaine Clement, Jenna Fischer, Shazi Raja
Director-screenwriter: Mike White
Producers: David Bernad, Dede Gardner, Sidney Kimmel
Executive producers: Carla Hacken, John Penotti
Director of photography: Xavier Grobet
Production designer: Richard Hoover
Costume designer: Alex Bovaird
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Casting: Meredith Tucker
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)
Rated R, 101 minutes