Compared to the clingy man-child that Mike White played in Chuck & Buck, Molly Shannon’s animal-obsessed Peggy from his directorial debut, Year of the Dog, and Laura Dern’s self-destructive Amy Jellicoe from his HBO series Enlightened, Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) comes off as positively normal. The man at the center of Brad’s Status is on the eve of a college-visiting trip to Boston with his son, Troy (Austin Abrams), when he finds himself obsessing over a recognizably universal anxiety: a gnawing sense of his own inferiority, an insecurity that’s ballooned into a full-blown existential crisis.
Brad is hardly a generic icon of midlife disenchantment: He’s a privileged white suburbanite who lives in Sacramento with Troy and his wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and who measures his sense of failure—he’s the head of a struggling nonprofit organization—in terms of material wealth. When scrolling through the Facebook pages and Instagram feeds of his closest college friends, or simply catching one such friend, political pundit Nick Pascale (Michael Sheen), on television, Brad finds himself envying what appears to be lifestyles that are more lavish than his own. His competitiveness is so keen that he even finds himself growing jealous of his own son, a talented musician who Brad fears may well become more successful than him.
Brad Sloan is, then, a paragon of middle-class entitlement. White is aware of the man’s self-absorption, as the filmmaker has one supporting character—a Harvard college student, Ananya (Shazi Raja), who Troy knew in high school—take Brad to task for agonizing over what she accurately considers first-world problems. And yet, the film is less contemptuous of Brad than compassionate: brutally honest about his faults, yet ultimately understanding of them.
It helps that Brad has self-awareness to burn. Throughout the film’s steady stream of voiceover narration, the man wrestles with his feelings, admitting his shortcomings while also trying to puff himself up. By making the audience privy to Brad’s constantly shifting inner monologue, White denies us any ironic distance from the man. Brad’s Status also offers some levity through a slew of amusing fantasy sequences in which Brad imagines both the possibilities of a life he hasn’t lived and the lives of his theoretically more successful friends. Such visions do more than just infuse the film with a formally playful bent, as they flesh out its larger theme of the chasm between image and reality—between Brad’s conception of his friends’ more glamorous lives and what he eventually discovers are their harsher realities.
Mostly, Brad’s Status resonates because White clearly sees Brad’s faults but refuses to judge him for them. Instead, the writer-director recognizes the man’s self-pity as symptomatic of broader insecurities: a deeply American fear of failure, which, for Brad specifically, is tied to the loss of the fiery political idealism that initially drove him as a college student. Such a character isn’t exactly a stretch for Stiller, but White’s unforgiving gaze—compared to Stiller’s own vanity-stained perspective throughout The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Noah Baumbach’s stacked deck in favor of the older generation that Stiller represents in While We’re Young—seems to have pushed Stiller into deeper and more poignantly introspective displays of emotion in this film.
Indeed, a scene in which Brad has a tear-streaked epiphany during a classical concert performance of Dvořák’s “Humoresque” feels like a breakthrough for the actor. Brad’s Status may be about first-world problems, but thanks to White’s humane outlook and Stiller’s performance, even within that limited perspective, the film exudes hard-earned wisdom about the worthiness of being grateful for what one has rather than pining for what one doesn’t.