'Brad's Status': Ben Stiller's character should shut up and count his blessings

Of the thousand petty indignities flesh is heir to, probably 900 are located at the airport.

Which is why, in the movies, it’s always fun to see Ben Stiller walk into one.

Remember Meet the Parents, the unchecked bag? Stiller specializes in subtleties of consumer humiliation, and is more comfortable than most actors playing characters dealing with disappointment and failure. Especially lately, adding notes of melancholy that come with age  — the laid-off journalist in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the guy with the midlife crisis in While We’re Young.

The latest in that vein is Brad’s Status. He’s the title character, a 47-year-old California man who runs a small nonprofit and who sees himself as a failure — feelings that become magnified as he sets out to tour prestigious universities with his high school senior son (Austin Abrams).

The journey starts at the airport, where Brad’s anxiety about his income and his social status come to the fore. He surveys his fellow proletarians, about to be herded into coach, and impulsively decides to angle for an upgrade to business class. But poor Brad’s not sure which credit card is maxed out. He also isn’t aware that you can’t upgrade if you purchase from a discount website. His encounter with the ticketing agents works out about as well as it did for Greg Focker.

The scene gets laughs, and is squarely in Stiller’s wheelhouse. It also establishes the themes in play — the college trip has Brad thinking about his own days at Tufts, where he befriended four young men who’ve since gone on to achieve celebrity and wealth — a hedge-fund titan (Luke Wilson), a best-selling author and pundit (Michael Sheen), a tech billionaire (Jemaine Clement), a famous film director (Mike White, who wrote and directed this movie). Brad stays awake at night comparing his situation to theirs, then ghoulishly asks his wife (Jenna Fischer) when she can expect to inherit her parents assets.

So Brad had four close friends in college, and each has become a spectacular success story? There is something glib and facile about this premise, and Brad’s Status — though often funny and insightful — often feels as if it’s exploring the problems of a man who doesn’t actually have them. The brief glimpse of Brad’s home life confirms this. His wife is industrious, successful, supportive, and in general a joy to be around. She helps him keep a tidy, lovely home, and has helped him raise a bright, well-mannered son whose academic credentials now allow him to choose among first-rate schools.

When Brad complains of being a “beta-male” it is not a confession of failure, but of self-absorption. And there are endless confessions. White presents the story mainly through narration that reveals Brad’s interior monologues. It is, by design, the kind of movie that tells you way more than it shows you.

The images and words ultimately agree, though: Brad should shut up count his blessings. Someone actually says as much, in a speech we know is coming, and is overdue when it does. We are also able to anticipate “surprising” revisions in the status of his college pals. For a movie that presents itself as formally inventive, developments in Brad’s Status are a little too easy to guess.

MOVIES

Brad's Status

  • Directed by Mike White. With Ben Stiller, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement, and Austin Abrams. Distributed by Amazon Studios.
  • Parent's guide: R (language)
  • Running time: 1 hour, 41 mins.
  • Playing at: Ritz Five, Bryn Mawr Film Institute and area theaters