In the films he has starred in — “Flirting With Disaster” (1996), “Meet the Parents” (2000) and its sequels — Ben Stiller has been the face of masochistic misfortune and self-deprecating low self-esteem. But his face as the title character in Mike White’s “Brad’s Status,” an illuminating and sometimes annoying anatomy of a narcissistic midlife crisis, suggests someone who has risen above travail to a place of wisdom. His features are calm and resigned, his striking, hazel eyes radiate acceptance and inner peace.
Brad’s self-centered, whiny and over-indulgent voice-over narration quickly contradicts this first impression. When he starts envying his own son’s imagined future success, you, along with other characters in the film, wonder about his mental health. In “Brad’s Status,” Stiller becomes the face of white male privilege — and its comeuppance.
Brad doesn’t have a lot to complain about. He has a nice house in Sacramento and makes a pretty good living with his online company connecting nonprofits with donors. His sweet-natured, talented son Troy (an outstanding Austin Abrams) has prospects for top universities. His devoted, idealistic wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) does laudable work for the government. So why does Brad, sleepless in the middle of the night, ask her how much her parents’ home is worth so he can figure how much they will inherit when the old folks die?
The problem is that Brad can’t get over the thought that he is a failure, especially compared to how well his college buddies are doing in the material world. In sad, crass fantasies Brad imagines how these friends of his youth are living a life of selfish, ostentatious success and wealth that are grotesque distortions of the American dream. These daydreams are like variations of those in Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (2013), except in that film the fantasies were for the most part deeds of altruistic heroism, not bitter reflections on how others have it better.
Surely, someone should call Brad on his delusions of self-debasement, which are clear to the viewer almost from the beginning of the movie?
Fortunately, while Brad accompanies Troy to Boston (some nice views of the Charles, but a lot shot in Montreal) where he is looking into applying for Harvard and Tufts, Brad meets Ananya (Shazi Raja), a friend from school. After awkwardly trying to hit on her, he unloads over drinks his life story and its discontents. But Ananya, who is neither white nor privileged, points out just how insulated and well-off he is (he may not be part of the 1 percent, as he laments, but he’s not far from the 10 percent).
Does this cure his solipsistic, pampered moping? White, who wrote the screenplay for the blunt and squirm-worthy “Chuck & Buck” (2000) and this year’s “Beatriz at Dinner,” doesn’t exactly do glib resolutions. But Brad’s lesson does encourage self-awareness, and that’s a start.
Directed and written by Mike White. Starring Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, West Newton, suburbs. 101 minutes. R (language).Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.