is a midlife crisis film starring Ben Stiller as a nearly 50-year-old man whose status anxiety is through the roof, poor thing. My heart bleeds and all that. I’ll tell you what Brad’s status should be: face well and truly slapped. The film is written and directed by Mike White (Beatriz at Dinner; Enlightened) and in some quarters it has been renamed Mike’s White Privilege, which is fair — no one else gets a look in — but as it’s intended as a satire of white male privilege you can’t exactly blame it for being white, male and privileged. However, while some moments will resonate (who hasn’t ever felt envy, or does not hope for shitty lives behind the shiny Facebook updates?), it’s more indulgent than stinging, and it’s not exactly a stretch for Stiller. He seems to have been playing these mid-life-crisis roles (Greenberg, While We’re Young, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Meyerowitz Stories) ever since he stopped meeting the parents and Robert De Niro stopped yelling at him. Perhaps there is a Ben Distillery somewhere? That churns these characters out for him?
The deal is straightforward. Brad lives a perfectly satisfactory life, if only he could see it. His wife is loving and supportive (a nothing role for Jenna Fischer, who is always at the end of the phone at home) and his son (Austin Abrams) is musically gifted and may be Ivy League material. He runs a non-profit, which he was passionate about once, and his house is comfortably suburban and much nicer than mine — and even yours possibly. But his one employee quits — hey, says the employee, I can do more good if I go into banking, get very rich, then give my money away — and now he can’t stop thinking about his old college friends (as played by Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement and also Mike White himself) who have become more successful than him, in his estimation, and it’s driving him mad.
In his mind’s eye he sees them stepping on and off their private jets or running along beaches, hand in hand with bikini-clad beauties. We are privy to his internal thoughts as they’re externalised, copiously and often unnecessarily, via voice-over. ‘There are moments you realise your entire life’s work is absurd and you have nothing to show for it,’ he might say. Or, ‘This is not the life I imagined… I feel the world is rubbing my nose in something.’ He discovers he’s so dropped off his friends’ radars he wasn’t even invited to the wedding of one of them. Frankly, all I was thinking at this juncture was that he should have made better friends at college. Interestingly (or not) he did not make any women friends back then. Satirically or otherwise, women in this film simply do not count. They are never the competition, presumably because they are too busy at the other end of the phone at home, supporting the husband’s narrative.
Obviously, Brad’s a jerk, but as he accompanies his son on a tour of colleges, and is forced to get back in touch with his old friends, we are invited to sympathise, which is as confusing as it is trying. We’re meant to be rooting for him? Seriously? For real? He is finally pulled up short by a friend of his son (Shazi Raja), a young Asian-American woman who tells him: ‘Don’t ask me to feel bad for you… I promise you, you have enough.’ Yes, a non-white female character, but we can’t say she properly counts, as she exists only to teach Brad about his luck. Largely, the satire is lost because it’s been blinded by that which it’s meant to be satirising.
The Ben Distillery is kept busy because, frankly, Stiller is good at these roles — good at playing self-absorbed, neurotic middle-aged men. And here he does so with the occasional flicker of self-awareness that adds an extra layer. Brad knows what he is and Brad is full of self-loathing yet he can’t stop believing that he somehow got left behind. However, the standout performance is that of Abrams who captures not only the diffidence of a late-teenager but also, unusually, a late-teenager who deals with his father’s increasingly weird, uncool behaviour with patience and compassion. I was always much more interested in him than his dad. Poor dad. My heart? Still bleeding.