We’re all familiar with the danger of the late night Instagram scroll. Got anxiety? It’s a surefire way to make it worse. Brad (Ben Stiller) has anxiety. He has insomnia and a general sense of discomfort, ennui and malaise. There’s no reason for Brad to feel this way — he has a nice, comfortable suburban home, a sweet wife (Jenna Fischer), a smart son. But what Brad doesn’t have is status. The kind of status (and most importantly, money) attained by his successful college friends. For Brad, his lack of status obliterates every good thing in his life.
In “Brad’s Status,” writer-director (and co-star) Mike White dives deeply into the life comparison trap that’s become so virulent in the social media age. This midlife crisis happens to fall on the week of his son’s college tour to the East Coast (or is it because of the college tour?) where father and son, Brad and Troy (Austin Abrams), explore what life might be like as a Harvard man.
Some of Stiller’s best performances have been in roles where he inhabits a kind, gentle neuroticism, uncomfortable in his own skin but never wanting to make anyone else too uncomfortable. His Brad is just that, and coupled with writer-director White, Brad’s journey becomes an existential, spiritual one.
While Brad shepherds his son around Cambridge, it offers him the chance to reflect on his own college days at Tufts, the tight-knit group of guys who went on to become hedge-fund managers (Luke Wilson), political pundits (Michael Sheen), tech moguls (Jemaine Clement) and movie directors (White). Brad, well, his online magazine failed and now he runs a small non-profit.
His overactive imagination fueled by rumor, jealousy and Instagram, Brad pictures the crisp, perfectly filtered lives of his comrades, all slow-mo images of private jets and white sandy beaches and opulent weddings. He imagines their lives in the same way he pictures his son’s future, his success and status, and his own vicarious status.
It’s relevant that success is never the issue at hand — it’s status, always status. Because Brad is successful to any outside observer, including Troy’s friend Ananya (Shazi Raja), a bright-eyed junior who calls him out on his white male privilege, who points out that he’s doing great. Ananya possesses Brad’s lost idealism, a quality he doesn’t even seem to mourn, simply giving her the advice to sell out as soon as she can.
It’s crucial that Brad gets called out after all of his moping and sulking at the indignities the world has inflicted upon him. But we can’t hate Brad, because Brad is the worst and best parts of us.
When he finally learns to settle into the moment, to find contentment in the things he already experiences, it’s a beautiful and quiet revelation, rendered with Mike White’s singular sensitivity and gentle touch.
Rated: R for language. Starring: Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer. Director: Mike White. Running time: 101 minutes. Theaters: Flicks, Majestic 18.