It's an oft-told tale, in Hollywood: A good man wracked by his envy of others he deems more successful than he at scoring the usual American-Dream jackpots of money, status, and fame. He eats himself alive over this at self-defeating length that's both funny and sad. At the climax other, mostly female, not-rich salts of the earth swoop in to persuade him that, OMG, it's a wonderful life just as it is.
Should we smell a rat when such tales are peddled by men whose bling exceeds all our blah prospects put together? Maybe, but when Mike White weighs in, it's worth following along with the nervously inventive mind that brought wonderfully skewed angles to bear on the lives of disgruntled plebs in movies from The Good Girl to Chuck & Buck to the recent Beatriz at Dinner.
"First-world problems," I heard someone mutter coming out of a critics' screening of Brad's Status, a dramedy written and directed by White about a middle-aged, middle-income family man freaking out while on a college tour with his teenaged son. Maybe so, but a Mike White movie rarely goes where you think it's going, even if it slots into place by the finish. Though it's less a departure from the mold than a meander home, Brad's Status offers usefully excruciating insights into the wild swings between hubris and self-laceration that fuel our daily efforts to solidify a coherent self.
No center holds for long in the head of Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller), a comfortably-off fellow who runs a non-profit in Sacramento, where his loving wife (Jenna Fischer) works for the Government. Even before he sets off with his college-bound son, Troy (The Walking Dead's Austin Abrams), Brad lies awake at night obsessing over the achievements of his former college posse at Tufts University, now pulling in the big bucks respectively as a Hollywood big cheese (White himself), a hedge fund manager (Luke Wilson), a retired tech entrepreneur (Jemaine Clement) living it up on a pleasure island, and a preening political pundit amusingly undercooked by Michael Sheen.
Once arrived in Boston, the perfect stage for a face-off between elite dreams and rest-of-the-world reality, Brad misses no opportunity to act out. He embarrasses his son and alienates everyone from Harvard Deans to other parents patiently waiting their turns, to some pretty cool undergrads with life-lessons to impart if he were only listening. There's some situational goofball here, interspersed with frequent cutaways to lurid scenarios in which Brad fantasizes how his former college pals live.
Like many comic actors Stiller can be tenaciously dour in a dramatic role, but, give or take a few too many close-ups of Brad gazing like a frightened deer into the camera, he makes a pretty convincing Everyman in free fall. Still, the movie is really a two-man show, and Abrams is magnificently downbeat as Troy, a remarkably sane, strategically monosyllabic kid who knows intuitively that he doesn't yet know what he wants from life, nor should he. The serious joke that drives Brad's Status is that at 17 years old, Troy is way more together and less tortured than his father and putative guide.
The less Brad knows, the more he projects his fears and desires onto others. It goes without saying that he will learn, via a clued-in stranger who's younger than he by several decades, that real people are complicated and mysterious: one friend with a rather crooked success story can also be a devoted family man, another a self-promoting opportunist who's also genuinely delighted to catch up with an old college friend, still another who's too strung out to notice he's supposed to be having the time of his life.
But the most interesting moments in Brad's Status unfold inside its protagonist's head — always the place where White as a filmmakeris most at home — with a suitably whiny atonal violin sawing away on the soundtrack to mirror his feverishly insecure voiceover. Instead of the usual steady advance to enlightenment, Brad's journey is a choppy sequence of clouds forming and parting. Every return to equilibrium presages a detour into a fresh illusory fantasy, a new source of envy, followed by a desperate clawing back to equilibrium, and so on. Things fall into place with disarming ease, and I came out wishing that Brad's Status militated a little less for an individual attitude adjustment and a little more for a reset of the American Dreams that drive us crazy. Rarely, though, has a mainstream movie so pointedly documented the free-floating anxieties of our time and place along the way.
Luckily, The kids are all right.