The title character of “Brad’s Status” is played by Ben Stiller, so already you know something about his status. This is a signature role for an actor we tend to take for granted.
Brad is imbued with all the characteristics Stiller is so adept at portraying: anxiety, envy, neediness, an over-eagerness to fit in. Stiller has ingested these things so well he can convey all of them in the course of a single line reading — something that happens a lot in “Brad’s Status.”
Who is Brad? A success story on the outside: As he nears 50, he’s running a socially-concerned nonprofit, with a happy wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and a son, Troy (the excellent Austin Abrams), about to go off to college.
On the inside, however, Brad thinks he’s fallen short. He constantly compares himself to his college friends, who have overachieved and found enormous wealth.
We listen to Brad’s interior monologue as we see scenes of these friends living the high life: a political pundit (Michael Sheen), a stockbroker (Luke Wilson), a retired tech innovator (Jemaine Clement), a Hollywood filmmaker (Mike White, this film’s writer-director).
Brad should have gone to Yale, not Tufts. He should have stayed back east, not moved to Sacramento. Who moves to Sacramento?
Over the course of a few days checking out colleges in Massachusetts with Troy, Brad glimpses a way to make things right. If only his kid can get into Harvard — maybe then he’d had proved something to the world, and to his old friends.
Things happen: an encounter with Troy’s idealistic college-age friend (Shazi Raja), a frantic attempt to get Troy a Harvard interview, and finally a dinner with the most flamboyantly successful of Brad’s old pals, the preening pundit, played faultlessly by Sheen.
It may be that this movie’s conclusions are neatly resolved, and that we see them coming from the opening minutes. But White, a specialist in discomfort who also wrote “Beatriz at Dinner” and the TV series “Enlightened,” keeps the specific incidents grounded in recognizable feelings. Brad may not be highly evolved, but he sure is human.
White has written the film with plenty of Brad’s voiceover, so the film feels like a novel from an earlier era. This device works in part because Brad’s version of things diverges from the world’s more complicated reality.
In the film’s big epiphany, there’s too much voiceover; it’s one moment where Brad doesn’t need to talk. Ben Stiller expresses everything with his face, the way good actors do — and nobody’s perfected this kind of nervous Gen-Xer the way Stiller has.
“Brad’s Status” (3½ stars)
Ben Stiller does terrific work in a signature role: a middle-aged father who nervously compares his life with the spectacular success of his old friends. Now if only his son can get into Harvard, maybe it will prove something — to others, or to himself. Mike White’s film doesn’t break new ground, but it’s observant about human nature, and it hands Stiller a rich opportunity.
Rating: R, for language
Opening Friday: Alderwood, Sundance Cinemas, Meridian