Ben Stiller has been having a midlife crisis in theaters for the better part of a decade. As the Meet the Parents and Night at the Museum series wound down and he approached 50, Stiller started regularly making movies about middle-aged guys dissatisfied with their lives, especially their perceived lack of success: Greenberg (2010) and While We're Young (2014) for Noah Baumbach (with a third Baumbach film hitting Netflix in October); his self-directed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013); and now Brad's Status, which is hitting select theaters this weekend.
Status makes central one particular aspect of Stiller's other recent midlife crisis movies. Brad, Stiller's character, is not especially successful, while most of his friends from college have gone on to great fame and/or fortune. Despite some nods toward Instagram envy, the title isn't a social-media pun. Brad's standing in life as the founder of a marginal nonprofit, the husband of the idealistic Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and a middle-class resident of Sacramento, California, feels minute compared to, say, his old buddy Craig (Michael Sheen), a former White House adviser now given ample airtime as an author and pundit. A bright spot glimmers in the form of Troy (Austin Abrams), Brad and Melanie's son. Brad and Troy are on a trip to see East Coast colleges when Brad learns his kid actually has a decent shot at getting into Harvard.
This sounds like the set-up for a dad comedy, wherein a well-meaning but overbearing father jumps through absurd hoops to help his kid get into a prestigious school and live vicariously through him. But writer-director Mike White clearly understands the emotional complexities of middle-aged neuroses; even Brad's pride in his son's success is elaborately second-guessed and broken down as soon as he feels it.
As such, a lot of the movie consists of voiceover and cutaways, either Brad's imaginings or just illustration of the people he talks about, but don't say much for themselves (characters played by Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement, and White himself interact with Stiller only briefly, if at all). A central repeated image of the film is Brad in bed, tossing and turning, unable to silence his thoughts and just sleep. The sheer volume of this tossing and turning, physical and verbal, can be suffocating, and even if the movie is aware of Brad's absurdity ("maybe her contentment undermined my ambition," he privately considers uncharitably of his wife), it's still a lot to ask to spend so much time in his head.
To some degree, White balances the movie by keeping its action at a medium cringe, rather than going for a full-on opus of embarrassment. Brad's relationship with Troy feels real — Abrams is wonderfully unaffected — and grounds his mood swings. Those mood swings, from panic to hope to impatience to love, are what White captures so well here, keeping his quiet, well-observed movie from becoming a poor man's Greenberg.
Even so, this is Stiller's fourth midlife crisis movie since 2010. His seeming fascination with the horrors of mediocrity might seem odd for a guy who has had so much success, and tedious as a sign of his continuing interest in the worries of middle-aged white guys. But Brad's Status does call out Brad's white privilege. Like most of Stiller's midlife crisis movies, this one calls attention to, and pokes fun at, his character's weakness for self-obsessed worrying.
The 2017 edition represents a mellowed progression from, say, that scene in Meet the Parents where Stiller blows up at a maddening flight attendant. One of the most gratifying things about Brad's Status is its willingness to end without providing a clear-cut lesson. It may portend several more movies where Ben Stiller grapples with feelings of inadequacy to varying levels of interest, but the lack of resolution feels honest, for the character and for the actor.
Stiller might be stuck in a midlife crisis on screen, but he deepens that crisis like a pro.