Ben Stiller is the poster-boy for painful self-doubt, his neurotic passivity to the fore in films such as Greenberg, As Walter Mitty, and in the recent The Meyerovitz Stories. He’s perfect for Brad’s Status, a funny yet maudlin exploration of mid-life crisis by writer and director Mike White, the man behind comic hits such as School of Rock (he plays Ned Schneebly) and Nacho Libre.
Brad is taking his teenage son Troy, on a tour of college campuses in Boston, escorting the boy on tours and stunned his son might be good enough to get into Harvard, a college Brad himself never contemplated.
It sets Brad off on a reminiscence about his own college days and his group of friends, who’ve all now gone on to be hugely successful – a tech mogul played by Jermaine Clement, a Hollywood director played by White himself, a hedge fund boss played by Luke Wilson, and a political commentator and oily author played by Michael Sheen. Brad, who lives in Sacramento with Troy and his lovely wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer), feels he’s failed at everything. “This is not the life I imagined,” he internally monologues while dreaming enviously of his ex-friends’ boundless riches and perfect lifestyles. A plucked and scratched violin score peppers these twinges of poisonous jealously, sometimes mellowing to twangs of double bass.
Brad can’t help compare himself with his peers, even with his son, whose youth and skills and pretty young friends, he both admires, envies and, cringingly desires. “For them the world isn’t a battleground, it’s a playground.”
The film bursts with patches of very funny fantasy, imagining life on beach in Maui and pocks them with shafts of awkward, painful comedy, such as Brad embarrassing his son in front the Harvard admissions team before rejoicing in pulling some strings with the fraying threads of his connections.
There’s a wisdom and insight here, an acute empathy with jealousy and one-upmanship of modern life (the ‘status’ of the title surely reflects on Facebook etc). Stiller’s great when the paraphernalia of modernity conspires against him, such as denied upgrades on a flight or getting a bad table in a restaurant. “Be present, be happy,” urges Melanie as her boys set off on their trip, and Stiller wrestles with that advice throughout. This is a perceptive performance in a bitingly apposite, cruelly honest film for those of a certain age.