‘Brad’s Status’ review: Ben Stiller excels as an anxious dad

Directed by Mike White

Starring Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer

Rated R

With “Brad’s Status,” writer-director Mike White finds a smart way to evoke a central feature of contemporary life, in a movie best understood as an extended riff on the way social media has exacerbated one of the more confounding aspects of human nature.

It’s about a suburban California dad named Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller), who lives what seems to be a comfortable and happy existence with wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and their son Troy (Austin Abrams).

But then there’s that pesky Instagram app on his smartphone and the constant, nagging reminder that his college friends seem to be achieving bigger and better things.

There’s the D.C. bigshot (Michael Sheen), a hedge fund titan (Luke Wilson), a retired tech giant (Jemaine Clement) and a superstar movie director (White). And every day, without fail, Brad finds himself faced with pictorial evidence of their apparent achievements, from joyful rides on private jets to romps on the beach and high-powered TV appearances.

It’s a slowly-building, increasingly all-encompassing anxiety — conveyed in anguished narration and with Stiller’s gift for conveying turmoil — and it sets into overdrive when Brad and Troy set out for Massachusetts on a college tour.

The particulars of how the plot advances matter far less than the emotional essence here.

The character can be exasperating and the movie smartly acknowledges the degree to which Brad’s whining seems ridiculous from an objective viewpoint. But it’s a wholly relatable feeling, derived from the compulsion to compare our lives with those around us that’s an unstoppable human instinct even when we aren’t faced with an omnipresent, sanitized impression of them.

This man simultaneously has no apparent problems and a whole host of them, and it’s the particular intelligence and precise calibration of White’s work that allows for you to understand Brad in an innate fashion while you wish he’d just calm down and stop the incessant complaining.

That’s a difficult balance to achieve. Stiller, who remains an underrated dramatic actor, instills Brad with a great degree of compassion and commits to his despair. Nonetheless, he doesn’t overdo it; this is a kindhearted person, who loves his son and wants what’s best for him, but can’t quite shake the disquieting feeling that he’s not living his best life.

His crisis is at once overwhelming and absurd. It’s a familiar feeling.