“Dad, are you having a nervous breakdown?” Troy asks his father, Brad. It’s a fair enough question, not least because Brad is played by Ben Stiller, a frighteningly high-strung performer even at his mellowest. Stiller, lean as a greyhound and gray around the temples, occupies the volatile middle ground between decent fellow and abrasive jerk, between adequacy and failure. He’s a regular guy perpetually threatening to turn into that guy, embarrassing the rest of us by association.
In “Brad’s Status,” Mike White’s astute, cringy and ultimately kindhearted new film, Stiller undergoes a midlife crisis that has less to do with restlessness or lust than with a dreadful loss of perspective. Brad, who runs a small nonprofit, lives in a handsome Craftsman-style house on a leafy Sacramento block. His wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), who works in state government, is patient and devoted. Troy (Austin Abrams), a rising high school senior, is an excellent student, a gifted musician and an all-around good kid. Brad lives in a soft pocket of the American dream. He should be counting his blessings, or at least checking his privilege.
Instead, he dreams of the greener grass where his old college pals frolic, consumed with envy for their gilded, fast-track lives. As he and Travis prepare to head east for a tour of potential colleges — Brad, who went to Tufts, is amazed to learn that his son is Harvard material — he is seized by anxieties that quickly migrate from the practical to the existential. The question of whether he and Melanie will have enough money for Travis’ tuition gives way to a resentful reckoning with his peers. How come he doesn’t have as much as they do?
These four men occupy a prime parcel of professional, personal and actual real estate. Nick (White) is a Hollywood director whose house has recently been featured on the cover of a glossy shelter rag. Jason (Luke Wilson) is a hedge fund mogul with a bevy of blond kids and a private jet. Billy (Jemaine Clement), having made a fortune in tech, now lives in polyamorous retirement on a beach in Maui. Craig (Michael Sheen) has parlayed a political career into best-selling authorship and television celebrity.
What do they have that Brad lacks? Where did he go wrong? Why does he only rate a worthless silver airline rewards card, instead of gold or platinum? He ruminates on these and related matters in long passages of voice-over narration, brought back to reality by the ringing of his cellphone or the needs of his son.
Brad also reconnects with his old friends — three of the four, at least — who drop hints that they might have problems of their own. Everybody does. And White is committed to giving everyone a fair hearing. He specializes in exquisitely awkward scenes made more so by his evenhanded sympathy. In one especially acute moment, Brad unburdens himself to a Harvard undergraduate named Ananya (Shazi Raja), who is a friend of Troy’s from back home. Rather than singing harmony with Brad’s white man’s blues, she rebukes him for his unthinking white male entitlement. “You’re 50 years old, and you still think the world was made for you,” she marvels.
She has a point. So does he. His angst is real, as are the gradations of social hierarchy that cause it. But in the bigger picture his misery is trivial. White could easily have loaded the satiric dice, emphasizing Brad’s Gen-X self-absorption or Ananya’s millennial self-righteousness, but he suspends judgment, leaving the viewer hanging in an exquisitely uncomfortable limbo. What are we supposed to think? We’re supposed to think for ourselves.
And “Brad’s Status” at its best is genuinely thought-provoking. As a writer, television creator and director — his resume includes “Beatriz at Dinner,” “Year of the Dog” and the HBO series “Enlightened” — White has honed a comic sensibility that avoids cruelty and minimizes exaggeration. He is attuned to the political implications of individual behavior and also to those aspects of experience that can’t be politicized. His characters are bundles of contradictory impulses and qualities. They are admirable and awful, full of idealism and full of themselves, weird and entirely familiar.
Sometimes you might wish he pushed them harder. “Brad’s Status,” a worthy addition to the burgeoning genre of empty-nest movies, smooths more feathers than it ruffles. In spite of Stiller’s displays of doubt and discomfort, the movie protects him from humiliation and finds a safe space for Brad’s bruised ego. There is something a little disappointing about this but also something honest, since the movie’s message is that what looks like disappointment should be embraced as the only real happiness there is.