The writer, director and actor Mike White has a knack for telling stories about the chasm between what people really want and who they really are. His sweet-and-sour satires are minefields of personal disappointment, bitterness and despair, littered with the wreckage of broken promises and unmet expectations. The characters who populate them, from the animal-loving loner played by Molly Shannon in "Year of the Dog" to Laura Dern's post-rehab whistle-blower on the HBO series "Enlightened," are typically dismissed as society's weirdos and losers.
Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller), the middle-aged family man in White's wonderful new comedy, "Brad's Status," is neither a weirdo nor a loser by any stretch of the imagination. He runs a small nonprofit based in Sacramento and enjoys a pleasant middle-class existence with his loving wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and their smart, college-bound son, Troy (Austin Abrams).
But Brad also worries intently about money and the future, and deep down he is troubled by what he suspects is his own mediocrity. He is reminded of this whenever he hears news of his four closest college buddies, who have all gone on to far greater material success than he has.
His old pal Billy (Jemaine Clement) is now a tech titan enjoying an early retirement on a Maui beach, while Craig (Michael Sheen, deliciously smug) has become an in-demand political pundit and bestselling author. Jason (Luke Wilson) is a major Wall Street player with his own private jet. And White himself pops up briefly, and with tongue firmly in cheek, as Nick, an in-demand Hollywood director with a beach house that was recently featured in the pages of Architectural Digest.
In one of the movie's wittiest touches, we first glimpse these characters not as they really are, but rather as dreamlike projections of Brad's jealousy. The camera, drifting about like an inebriated bumblebee, alights on these men of power and privilege, watching them strut through their enviably perfect lives, accompanied by Brad's sulky voice-over and — adding hilarious insult to injury — the drooping, dithering violins of Mark Mothersbaugh's score.
We are, in short, firmly in the realm of the male midlife-crisis comedy, a subgenre with its own long, proud tradition of mediocrity. But White seems well aware of the potential pitfalls, and he avoids them with a self-awareness that his protagonist could use more of. Starting from a single key insight into human behavior — the natural compulsion to compare oneself to others — White has spun a funny, empathetic and surprisingly grounded comedy that itself defies obvious comparisons.
He is aided by one of Stiller's richest performances in years, one that fits nicely alongside the men the actor has played in recent films like "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "While We're Young" and the forthcoming "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)." Once a fixture of outrageous mainstream comedy, whether as a much-abused straight man in "Meet the Parents" or a boisterous object of ridicule in "Zoolander," the actor has become an all-too-plausible avatar of middle-aged discontent. He embodies everyday normalcy with extraordinary ease.
The slender story is set in motion when Brad and Troy head to Boston on a college-scouting trip, with both Harvard and Tufts on the agenda. There's a cringe-making beauty of a scene in which Brad realizes that his son has an excellent shot at getting into Harvard, and Stiller plays out his reaction all sorts of marvelously complex notes: a rush of pride at Troy's accomplishments, a flush of shame at having underestimated him and a faint tinge of resentment that his own child might soon eclipse him.
In other words, Brad's weakness for comparing himself to others isn't limited to his friends. But rather than milking the father-son relationship for easy conflict or cheap laughs, "Brad's Status" gives them all sorts of realistically thorny and affectionate scenes to play, many of them rooted in the everyday foibles of traveling to a strange new place. Brad, trying to upgrade their flight, is cruelly reminded that he's an economy passenger all the way. Troy accidentally misses his Harvard interview, creating an awkward situation that Brad ill-advisedly tries to fix by getting in touch with Craig, who's a member of the school faculty.
Although nearly every interaction forces Brad to consider the ramifications of his toxic self-regard, "Brad's Status" isn't interested in punishing him. At the heart of White's work is not only a deep love for his characters but also a sincere belief in the possibility of their redemption — not through the kind of self-help bromides that he skewered mercilessly on "Enlightened," but through a gradual awakening to the needs of others. Empathy is the natural antidote to envy, and it's a lesson that White's characters must stumble toward, in clumsy yet heroic fashion.
"You're 50 years old and you still think that the world was made for you," says a Harvard student (Shazi Raja, an excellent newcomer) who winds up getting to know Brad more deeply than she expected or probably wanted. It's a pointed line of dialogue and a slightly self-conscious one, as if White were trying to preempt the accusation that his movie is merely wallowing in white male privilege rather than holding it up for barbed comic scrutiny.
It's no spoiler to point out that the movie concludes on an unresolved, discordant note. To reward Brad with a tidy ending, after all, would only indulge his sense of himself as the center of the universe. Fittingly enough, it's Troy — very appealingly played by Abrams as a young genius and an absent-minded teenager rolled into one — who ultimately pulls Brad back to reality. He leaves us with the lovely realization that the solution to Brad's problem, the proof that he's always been meant for extraordinary things, has been under his nose all along.
Rating: R, for language
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood; and AMC Century City 15, Century City