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story.lead_photo.caption Brad (Ben Stiller) is a discontented middle-aged man married to happy-go-lucky Melanie (Jenna Fischer) in Mike White’s study of peer envy Brad’s Status.

Brad (Ben Stiller) has nothing to complain about.

He's got a nice life, a comfortable existence with a handsome family that includes pretty wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and a bright (maybe brilliant) 17-year-old son, Troy (Austin Abrams). Brad runs his own nonprofit organization, one that helps other nonprofits navigate social media. Melanie works in local government, doing something vaguely do-gooderly. They all live in an airy house that, were it located in certain neighborhoods in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, might be worth more than $1 million.

Brad’s Status

88 Cast: Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement, Jenna Fischer, Shazi Raja

Director: Mike White

Rating: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

But they don't live in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. They live in Sacramento, which Brad sees as a secondary market full of "beta males." Brad is disappointed in his circumstances. He feels he was meant for grander things than hustling for donations in a backwater town. After all, his friends from college have all gone on to distinguish themselves -- Nick (writer-director Mike White) is a Hollywood producer whose birthday-cake marble mansion is featured in the most recent issue of Architectural Digest; Jason (Luke Wilson) is a high-flying financier with a company jet; Billy (Jemaine Clement) is a former internet mogul who retired early to Maui where he's shacked up with two beautiful "wahines" who share his passion for surfing and sex; and Craig (Michael Sheen) is a former White House press spokesman turned best-selling author who's always popping up on the cable news shows.

Back in their school days, Brad thought of himself as at least their equal. But his idealism and some bad luck, coupled with his marriage to an easily satisfied woman prevented him from realizing his own potential. Brad resents his old friends and regards his pleasant existence as a kind of consolation prize. At 47, he realizes there's little chance his circumstances will change -- maybe some small inheritance will come their way, but it won't make much of a difference.

Operating in the same subdued dramatic mode he employed in Greenberg and in 1998's powerful and lacerating Permanent Midnight, Stiller allows some chippiness to show through his hangdog mien. It's a nuanced performance that gives Brad humanity even when he's behaving boorishly.

Brad is not a particularly likable guy, but he is a credible character. His problems are those of a college-educated, property-owning white American, but they are real enough to him. He lies awake at night worrying about more than money. He worries about how to be happy.

Most of Brad's Status takes place during a trip Brad and Troy make to Boston to check out potential colleges. Troy is apparently a talented musician, and his school counselor has encouraged him to think big -- Harvard is a real possibility. So is Brad's alma mater Tufts University.

All this information is presented matter-of-factly; Brad and Troy both grew up in circumstances that made them believe in the possibility of attaining a Harvard education. (Brad was short-listed but ultimately didn't get in.) When Troy messes up an appointment time, Brad has a friend with influence he can call to schedule another interview. (He briefly hesitates to make the call, not because he feels guilty about taking advantage of the connection but because he's hurt by a perceived slight.)

It is very clear that despite all of Brad's self-deprecation, he's a privileged, arrogant dude. But, as Brad will later tell a character who tries to make him confront this fact, it doesn't really matter if they understand how lucky they are, they don't measure themselves against the less privileged -- it is their peer group that serves as markers. It is Nick, Jason, Bill and Craig who matter to Brad. They are his basis for comparison.

Maybe that's not right, but that is pretty much the way it seems to work.

I'm not sure the movie intends for us to empathize with Brad as he undergoes a series of petty humiliations that will be familiar to most Americans of his comfortable class. His frequent-flier miles aren't quite good enough to get him in the shorter line, much less upgrades to business class. He's the sort of restaurant patron who gets seated by the kitchen (though when his glamorous friend arrives, a better table is suddenly available).

While White seems to make a few attempts to inoculate his film from the literal-minded criticism that it's a movie about a selfish white guy with First-World problems, I imagine some moviegoers will dismiss it out of hand as a kind of pity party for New Yorker readers and NPR listeners.

But I see it as a kind of plausible horror film, a monster movie where Brad is a wounded soul trapped by his own materialism, narcissistic insecurities, envy and shame. White is a humanist who locates comedy in social anxiety; he likes to make his audience squirm as they recognize the foibles of his characters as manifestations of their own doubts and wishes. (I've liked his work since 2000's Chuck & Buck, especially the HBO series Enlightened, which ran from 2011 to 2013.)

"Lose yourself in nature and find peace," is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that is embedded in a song lyric featured in the film (it's performed both by Troy and a Harvard street musician, with Troy's version shown over the end credits). It provides a key to White's work -- the song, written by Houston-based musician Anna Padgett, was also heard over the end credits of White's 2007 film Year of the Dog.

Melanie (Jenna Fischer) is part of the good life Brad takes for granted in Mike White’s Brad’s Status, a dramatic comedy that, in a way, feels like a horror film.

And at the end of the film we see some hope for Brad as he slowly reconciles himself to the fact that his friends are all, in their own ways, as wounded and suffering (and self-indulgent) as he is. Like us, he's still breathing.

MovieStyle on 09/22/2017

Print Headline: A small circle of friends

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