“You’re a white kid from the suburbs without a sob story. We’re the underdogs here.” – Ben Stiller’s Brad, “coaching” his teenage son as the kid interviews at Harvard.
He needs to be slapped silly. That should be Brad’s status.
Ben Stiller’s Brad is one of those smart but bitter and unlikable middle-aged underachievers whose default mode is resentful and worried and on the verge of a panic attack.
Even though his life is pretty great.
Brad, in his late 40s, and his family live in Sacramento, in a comfortable house on a quiet street.
Brad runs a small, non-profit group that matches foundations with deserving beneficiaries. His wonderful wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) works for the California state government, trying to make a difference from the inside.
They have a sweet, slightly socially awkward, 17-year-old son named Troy (Austin Abrams), who is a brilliant student and a prodigy as a musician.
Not bad, Brad. Stop complaining, Brad. Get a little perspective and realize you’re in a pretty good place, Brad.
In the dead of night, Brad wakes up his wife and quizzes her about her well-off parents. How much of their money should they expect to receive once her folks die?
Brad also seethes with envy over every triumph by his old college pals: Craig (Michael Sheen), a popular TV pundit and author; Jason (Luke Wilson), a rich CEO with his own plane; Nick (Mike White), a famous Hollywood director, and Billy (Jemaine Clement), a multi-millionaire who retired at 40 and lives in Hawaii with two gorgeous women.
He envisions their lives and wonders: Why them? Why not ME?
With Melanie conveniently unavailable (plot-wise) to accompany Brad and Troy on Troy’s tour of East Coast colleges, it’s time for a father-son bonding trip.
In the first of many episodes in which Brad’s status-obsessed behavior humiliates his son, Brad tries desperately (and fails miserably) to upgrade their plane tickets. We feel for the kid as he wishes he could just disappear.
The more we learn about Brad, the less we like him. His immaturity and selfishness are so all-consuming, he seems to know little about his son’s life. He’s shocked to find out Troy’s high school counselor believes Troy has a legitimate shot at Harvard. When Brad and Troy meet up with Troy’s friend Ananya (Shazi Raja), a 21-year-old music student and activist at Harvard, we’re told Troy and Ananya were in orchestral groups together years earlier. Troy was that good, that young.
And yet Brad never knew about that? What was he doing all those years? Simmering and seething?
The talented writer-director Mike White (“Chuck & Buck,” “School of Rock”) is clearly serving up Brad as a social-satire sacrificial lamb. We’re not supposed to like this guy. OK.
But the casting of Stiller — an undeniably gifted actor who sometimes comes across as a little too self-pleased and showbiz slick and condescending, even in roles requiring accessibility — is equal parts smart and problematic.
Stiller is very good at playing this kind of character. The issue is whether we’re tired of him playing this kind of character.
When Brad sneaks out one night to meet up with Ananya and her friends, and the bright-eyed Ananya asks Brad for life advice, she is taken aback by his small-minded, cynical, self-centered rant.
Welcome to the club, Ananya. We knew this guy was a forgettable jerk not worth our time five minutes into this movie.
Amazon Studiospresents a film written and directed by Mike White. Rated R (for language). Running time: 102 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.