'Brad Status' review: Ben Stiller heads piercing satire of first-world problems

It’s hard to say how it happened, but over the past decade, Ben Stiller has effectively cornered the market on playing malcontent middle-aged white guys. So, while this is the first time he’s actually embodied Brad Sloan — the married and miserable fiftysomething who frets his way through Brad’s Status — this latest performance is basically just a slight variation on the characters he tackled in While We’re Young, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and, most recently, The Meyerowitz Stories.

A piercing satire of first-world privilege from sardonic maestro Mike White (the writer behind Beatriz at Dinner and HBO’s Enlightened), Brad’s Status takes a tough, critical look at a one-time idealist (and fulltime egotist) who’s about to send his teenage son Troy (Austin Abrams) off to college. Instead of putting himself in his son’s shoes, Brad spends most of his time obsessing about his own failures, comparing where his personal life trajectory has taken him with those of his old university pals (amusingly played by Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement and White himself). To Brad, the unctuous quartet appear to be living the dream, while he’s stuck living in Sacramento.

Most of Brad’s Status takes place on a visit to east-coast colleges, where Troy — who’s something of a musical prodigy — stands a good chance at being accepted to Harvard U. And yet, instead of being elated for his son’s success, Brad is preoccupied with the fact that his own college buddies appear to be much richer and happier than he is. Without giving anything away, the movie builds to a classical music recital in Cambridge, Mass., and there, dead-center in the audience, is Brad, playing world’s smallest violin.

That’s a metaphor, of course, though Stiller’s nearly wall-to-wall narration serves as a whiny backbone for the film. Brad’s interior monologue is well-written, but also largely unnecessary (surely half the words would have done, and silence, especially in the concert scene, might have allowed audiences to read a bit more into what the character was feeling). Still, Brad’s general irritability is nicely reinforced by a discordant string score from Mark Mothersbaugh, which serves to put audiences on edge as the dyspeptic character grouses: “It’s stupid to compare lives, but when I do, I feel somehow I’ve failed, and over time, the feelings get worse,” he complains, which isn’t half as horrible as his later remark, “What if Troy’s wins made me feel even more a failures, what if I became envious of my own son?”

Earlier, as if to forebode the point, White includes a wonderfully awkward scene in which Brad walks in on Troy, who’s in his room wearing only a towel. (It could be worse: 20 years ago, around the time of Chuck & Buck, master-of-discomfort White might have written it so Brad caught him pleasuring himself, or looking at port.) Seeing Troy shirtless, it’s as if he’s recognizing his son for the first time as an adult, and by extension, as competition — which is certainly the unspoken subtext of a later scene, when he waits for Troy to fall asleep, then slips out to spend time with the pretty Harvard student, Ananya (Shazi Raja), we have reason to believe Troy might have hooked up with at band camp.

Whether or not that assumption is correct, it’s clear that dad is elbowing in on his son’s territory. Only a supreme narcissist could see it the other way around. But Brad is a supreme narcissist, and as such, he makes for an extremely unpleasant protagonist — which is kinda White’s point. That means Brad’s Status is a movie for those who can handle watching someone who is, paradoxically, always in the process of over-analyzing himself (trapped in his own head, as it were) and so totally un-self-aware at the same time (incapable of considering others’ perspectives or experience). It’s a film with the courage to be unlikable and the confidence to be complex, trusting audiences to navigate Brad’s whirling, restless mental state as it swings from jealousy to pride to what Ananya (correctly) identifies as “white privilege, male privilege, first-class problems” — otherwise known as entitlement.

Ananya’s an incredibly useful character because she’s able to put Brad’s solipsistic soul-search in perspective — although it’s not clear that she’s allowed to be much more than that. White seems to be awarding himself points for inclusivity, by sprinkling the film with people of color, the way movies like Her and La La Land count themselves diverse for employing what we might call “off-white extras” on the margins. It’s not the same thing, but it’s not an entirely bad thing either.

Brad’s Status is a blindingly white movie, and though we know White himself if more progressive than that (as Beatriz at Dinner demonstrated), there’s no denying that his insights and stiletto-fine criticisms feel like relics of a previous century, nearly as old-fashioned as Merchant Ivory movies. This is the kind of mainstream relic against which Dear White People (and Get Out, and Moonlight, and a vital new wave of independently voiced counter-programmers) tend to react, but it doesn’t mean that they should go away, just that the marketplace ought to make room for what were once seen as “marginal perspectives. No question that it remains unfairly easy for White to get a movie like this made, greenlit with a typecast Stiller in the lead (great as Stiller is as such roles, conveying even more via body language than he does by dialogue, it might be nice to see another, slightly younger actor give it a shot).

Again, White is savvy enough to know what he’s doing, and what he’s doing is exploring the obliviousness of a character who considers himself liberal. Back when Brad went to school, he wanted to change the world, and while the classmates played by Sheen (now a top White House adviser), Wilson (a married-well entrepreneur with a private jet), Clement (a dot-commer with a beach house and a dream life) and White (a flaming gay filmmaker whose pool-party pad was featured in Architecture Digest) either sold out or cashed in, Brad followed his idealism and went into the non-profit sector. Now, he’s married to Melanie (Jenna Fischer), whose healthy sense of contentment seems to irritate his own dissatisfaction, and obsessed with the Facebook and Instagram feeds of former peers whom he now considers rivals.

This tech angle — which clearly inspires the film’s play-on-words title, simultaneously referring to both Brad’s social standing and the way he represents himself online — is perhaps the film’s one false note. Brad’s Status simply doesn’t feel like a 2017 film, and it’s strange how un-tech-savvy Brad is for someone who works as a social-media consultant. Chances are, Brad’s never heard of Twitter siren Sarah Hagi, but he’s precisely the sort she had in mind when she coined the phrase, “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man” — while White has the nerve to make said privilege the subject of an entire movie.

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