Culture

Ben Stiller’s Inconvenient Truths

Ben Stiller in Brad’s Status (Photo: TIFF/YouTube)
Stiller's latest film does what he does best, extracting comedy from the embarrassments and resentments of middle age.

Ben Stiller has built a career around humiliating himself on screen, but in his new film he channels a newer, deeper level of unease. This time it’s not the frank and beans but the hopes and dreams that are getting painfully squeezed.

The film is Brad’s Status, a thoughtful and autumnal indie (it’s being released in theaters by Amazon Studios, which will in due course make it available to stream on Amazon Video) that is structurally and tonally similar to Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, in which an aging professor reflects on his life on a trip back to his hometown. Stiller’s Brad is a middle-class Sacramento man, the founder of a small nonprofit who is blessed with both a happy wife (Jenna Fischer) and a poised, likable son (Austin Abrams), a high-school senior who is applying to Harvard.

Naturally, Brad is miserable.

On a trip to Boston to visit Harvard and also Tufts, from which Brad graduated, memories of college trigger a quiet crisis. Brad is being corroded by jealousy of four classmates who have become celebrities. One is a rich hedge-fund manager (Luke Wilson) with a gorgeous family and a private jet; another (Michael Sheen) is a presidential advisor and famed Washington pundit; another (Jemaine Clement) made so much money in the tech industry that he retired at 40 and now lives with two girlfriends on Maui. The writer-director of the movie, Mike White, whose wide-ranging c.v. also includes the screenplay for School of Rock, plays the fourth friend, a Hollywood director whose house is so posh it was featured on the cover of Architectural Digest.

As the film begins, Brad is lying in bed at night contemplating his former friends’ success as it is presented on social media, and their good fortune is eating him alive. “I felt like the world was rubbing my nose in something,” he says. Essentially the entire movie is Brad bemoaning his relative anonymity, poverty, and lack of status. There isn’t really a plot, and only the thinnest wisp of an epiphany is forthcoming.

The appeal of Brad’s Status is in how adeptly Stiller and White make us sympathize with Brad’s mini-breakdown, with the agony he feels at being a nobody. At the airport with his son Troy, Brad finds he is merely a “silver” customer to the airline, not gold or platinum, and so has to wait in a long line to board. Attempting to splurge on an upgrade to business class for a sum ($800 per ticket) that isn’t easily affordable, Brad learns to his humiliation that he is ineligible anyway, because he bought his tickets from a discount site. “There’s actually no amount of money you can pay to get an upgrade,” a clerk tells him, and the remark sounds both slightly surreal and completely believable given that we’re dealing with an airline here.

Status keeps scything its way through Brad’s life, separating him from more important human beings again and again. Later he will learn that he wasn’t invited to the wedding of one friend, nor to the funeral of another. When he finds out that his college pal the hedge-fund manager has a three-year-old daughter with a life-threatening illness, Stiller doesn’t let his face betray the emotion but you can sense that Brad is feeling a small thrill. It’s an ugly feeling, and one we can easily relate to even as we deplore it.

The purpose of the film is not so much to tell a story as to explore an unsettling personality trait in the age of social media: Studies showing that Facebook makes us unhappy are piling up, glimpses of others’ joys stoking our jealousy. Gore Vidal put the feeling in a one-liner: “Every time a friend succeeds I die a little.” We’re powerless to put down our phones and equally powerless to stop comparing our success, or lack thereof, to that of our peers. Brad’s wife tells him life is not a competition. She should be right, but is she?

Late in the film, there are some lovely, unforced scenes in which Brad and his son have dinner with a pair of appealing female students from Harvard and Brad can’t help sharing his feelings with one of them. Her parents are from India, though, and being familiar with a place where most people live on a couple of bucks a day gives her the perspective he lacks. He should be content with what he’s got. As in several previous Ben Stiller films, though — notably 2009’s Greenberg — the Ben Stiller character is aware of how self-defeating his behavior is, even if he can’t bring himself to change it. And that, not the farcical situations in which he finds himself in his broad comedies, is what is most cringe-inducing about his films: the embarrassing, uncomfortable truths with which he grapples.

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