So you think a typical teen worries about getting into the right college. Get a load of Brad's Status, a high-anxiety satire from writer-director Mike White that focuses on a parent who thinks the process is far more traumatic for him. Enter Ben Stiller in one of his best and most acutely observed performances as Brad Sloan, a father taking his musical genius son, Troy (a standout Austin Abrams), on a tour of east-coast colleges. Mom Melanie (Jenna Fischer) had to work. Troy has the props to make the grade, even at Harvard. But Brad is losing his shit about it, calling in favors Troy doesn't need and mistaking his son's success as a dark reflection of his own failure. "We aren't poor," his wife chides him, referring to their comfortable life in Sacramento. But Brad is an effing mess, and Stiller gets right at the deep insecurity that plagues every narcissist. Come share his pain.
That may sound like a bleak invitation. But not in the hands of White. His subversively funny scripts for Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, School of Rock, Beatriz at Dinner and HBO's Enlightened, reflect the unease of living in a world of your own perceived inferiority. Brad's Status is White's second film as writer and director, following 2007's Year of the Dog, and it cuts to the comic bone of the stress that comes with wanting more. Brad, a recovering idealist, is acutely aware of status since he works as a social media consultant in the non-profit sector. The Facebook feeds of his former college buddies drive him up the wall. Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen) is a famous TV know-it-all; dotcom tycoon Billy Wearslter (Jemaine Clement) has taken early retirement to live large in the tropics; Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson) hit the jackpot in hedge funds; and Nick Pascale (White himself) is a gay filmmaker whose pool parties have made him a media sensation. Brad resents all of them, failing to see their own shortcomings even when they're right in front of him. BTW: Sheen gets in the spikiest acting licks.
Yes, Brad is an asshole for whom self-awareness remains frustratingly out of reach. In voiceover, we hear him bitch and complain until you want to shout, "shut the fuck up." But White and Stiller don't deny Brad a soul. His love for his son is clear even when he feels jealous and resentful towards him. Abrams is very fine at showing the boy's affection. Ironically, it's a stranger who gives Brad the kick in the psyche he needs. She's Ananya (Shazi Raja, outstanding), a Harvard student friend of Troy's who Brad seeks out at a bar while his son sleeps. What are Brad's intentions? No need to worry since Ananya, a person of color, sets him straight real quick, seeing his complaints for what they are—"white privilege, male privilege, first-world problems." As she tells him, "I promise you, you have enough."
Brad's Status is tough on its title character. And often on its audience. But Stiller, nailing every nuance in a complex role, allows us to see the small increments Brad is making at getting outside his own head. In the concert scene that ends the film, an orchestral rendering of Antonin Dvorak's "Humoresque," Brad sits and contemplates emotions unrelated to his status. It's a small victory, but a significant one, free of Hollywood uplift and packaged tearjerking. Thanks to Stiller's prodigious gifts at blending comedy and drama, it's hard not to see ourselves in Brad's besieged humanity. That's the thing with Stiller and White – they make you laugh till it hurts.