Mike White delivers a sharp but sensitive satirical study of male mid-life crisis in “Brad’s Status,” in which Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller), a 47-year old Californian, becomes increasingly embittered with what he views as the unfairness with which the world has treated him as he accompanies his son Troy (Austin Abrams), a high school senior and talented musician, on a college tour of a couple East Coast schools. It succeeds in the difficult task of taking a character who’s basically an obnoxiously self-centered whiner and making him if not likable, at least somewhat sympathetic.
Stiller is, of course, an old hand at this kind of role, and in the voiceover narration that reveals Sloan’s inner thoughts over the course of the trip—reports on which he periodically relates to her perky wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer), who’s had to stay home for work reasons—he struggles to comprehend how his life has gone wrong, always trying to justify himself in the process. Nearly fifty, after a slew of false starts he finds himself heading a tiny non-profit that aims to link other non-profits with possible funding sources. He’s so worried about money (including, it’s revealed at one point, paying for Troy’s tuition) that before departing he actually asks Melanie about how much she might expect to inherit from her parents.
He also seems a bit jealous of Troy, especially after learning that the lad has a good chance of getting into Harvard—something he once dreamed of himself, though he wound up at Tufts. There’s further evidence of envy when he shambles off one night after Troy’s gone to sleep in order to have a drink with Ananya (Shazi Raja), a Harvard student who’s a friend of his son’s. (The episode ends in near-humiliation, however, when he rambles on about his discontent and she points out that he really doesn’t have very much to complain about.)
The real focus of Brad’s jealously, however, are his four college buddies, all of whom have enjoyed far greater material success than he has. We see them all through their social media postings and his imagination—Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson), a hedge fund mogul with a private plane and photogenic family; Billy Wearslter (Jermaine Clement), who’s sold his software company and has retired to Maui for a life of pleasure; Nick Pascale (director White), a Hollywood director with an entourage constantly milling about his pool; and Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), a slick talker who parlayed a political job into a career as a writer and cable-TV pundit. Brad’s irked that they all seem to have forgotten him—he’s especially peeved when he learns that Nick recently got married to his boyfriend with Jason, Billy and Craig in attendance, and he wasn’t invited.
That doesn’t stop him, though, from reaching out to them when a hiccup occurs in Troy’s schedule that threatens the boy’s on-campus admissions interview at Harvard. Melanie recalls that Craig has taken a teaching post in Cambridge, and so Brad reluctantly gets his number by calling Billy and asks him to intervene. Craig not only does, but suggests they have dinner—where he lets Sloan know that his ideas about the others’ idyllic lives may be rather wide of the mark. Even here, though, Brad can’t overcome his sense of injury, which is only compounded by Craig’s offhanded remark that he’d given the eulogy at the funeral of Brad’s favorite professor—someone whose death Brad had only now learned about when he tried to drop in on the guy.
All of this sounds like an unremittingly cutting castigation of the whining of a privileged white male. The movie certainly does skewer Brad’s obliviousness about how lucky he really is, compared to others far worse off than he. But while sending a good many satirical arrows his way, it also lets us glimpse his better side. Brad might be a bit jealous of his son—a boy with his whole life ahead of him while Sloan sees himself as an abject failure. He even imagines the future Troy as a failure, too (though he also imagines him as a roaring success, though with the kick that as such he might poke fun at the old man). But he also clearly loves the kid. The key to that is the deft interplay between Stiller and Abrams, who skillfully moves between embarrassment over his father’s more absurd antics (as when he argues with the Harvard admissions staff), genuine hurt when Brad berates him, and displays of real affection for his father. White, Stiller and Abrams really manage to touch on the fragility of the father-son bond, which can run the emotional gamut in just a few minutes.
And the film does allow Brad an epiphany of sorts as he abandons his meal with Craig and decides to join Troy for a concert in which Ananya, a flautist, joins her violinist pal Maya (Luisa Lee) in a performance of Dvorak’s famous “Humoresque” (Op. 101, No. 7) that brings him to tears—a sign of a choice to embrace what he has rather than complain about what he doesn’t.
Stiller is, of course, a past master of simmering discontent, and White provides him with numerous opportunities to savor it here, especially in the voiceover. But the actor goes beyond that, conveying that there’s more to Brad than mere bitterness and moving his status from pitiable to hopeful. Abrams helps enormously with his natural, unforced performance as a regular teen with anxieties of his own that he covers with a “whatever” attitude. Fischer engagingly brings her “Office” persona to the big screen, and Wilson, Clement and White seem to enjoy every moment of their cameos. It’s Sheen who stands out among Brad’s college buds, though, exuding the easygoing sense of unearned privilege that Brad lusts after—and ultimately recognizes as something that one shouldn’t really want.
Like all of White’s more personal projects, “Brad’s Status” is technically a bit ragged, but not irritatingly so, and DP Xavier Grobet makes good use of the Boston locations. Special credit goes to Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, which subtly reflects Brad’s emotional journey.
Mike White is, finally, one of our more interesting independent filmmakers. He bridges the divide between edgy and crowd-pleasing, being able to make pictures that are sharp, yet not so biting as to be alienating. He’s not the most sophisticated of directors—his visual style, if he has one, is grounded in simplicity rather than flamboyance of any sort. But he does make films that manage both to challenge and entertain—a nice combination that “Brad’s Status” again demonstrates.