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Ben Stiller’s Masterpiece in Self-Loathing

The famously insecure actor stars as a painfully insecure man in the new film, ‘Brad’s Status’

It’s been five years since Ben Stiller’s famously revealing profile in The New Yorker, which presented him as a talented, ambitious but fatally insecure human being. This excerpt is a case in point:

[Stiller’s wife] Christine Taylor said, “I have a completely different view of Ben’s body of work than he does. I say, ‘Look at all you’ve done, it’s the ultimate career!’ He recognizes that, but he thinks, Do my peers respect me? I don’t get nominated for awards. … And it would feel good to get the call from this director, or that one.” Friends say that Stiller regrets not being asked to star in films such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love or Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. When her husband gets downhearted, Taylor says, “I tell him to remember when Tom Cruise sent two hundred cupcakes when Night at the Museum became a hit.”

When Stiller was asked for his reaction to his wife’s comments, he acknowledged that Hollywood is a competitive business — and yet he added, “But it would be great to have every director calling all the time!”

That near-crippling self-loathing, constant comparison to others and chronic inability to be happy is on full display in Stiller’s new film, Brad’s Status, which opens Friday. His deeply neurotic character may not cure the star of his own neuroses, but by exploring the symptoms so expertly, he makes the rest of us feel less alone in our hangups.

Brad’s Status was written and directed by Mike White, partly in tribute to his father, and it stars Stiller as Brad, who runs an unflashy nonprofit in Sacramento. He’s the kind of guy who lies in bed with his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) agonizing over how little money they make and what kind of financial windfall they might receive when her parents die.

Narrating all his insecurities in voiceover, Brad ought to be happy — and, deep down, he knows he should be happy — but everything around him gives him reason to be depressed. Even the news that his musical-prodigy teen son Troy (Austin Abrams) is going to be visiting Harvard for an interview makes him melancholy. Sure, he’s proud of Troy as they head off to the East Coast, but he can’t stop thinking about how bright his own future seemed in college. And now look at him: just some guy running a nonprofit while his college buddies are awash in fame and/or cash. Craig (Michael Sheen) is a respected political commentator on TV; Jason (Luke Wilson) has his own private plane and +beautiful family; and charming Billy (Jemaine Clement) made so much money that he’s retired and lives on an island.

Yup, everybody in Brad’s life turned out to be incredibly successful — he’s the only failure.

What’s important to keep in mind is that Brad’s Status never bothers convincing us that Brad is justified in his low self-esteem. One of the movie’s strokes of genius is that it’s all told from Brad’s perspective, never allowing us any way to verify how pathetic his life actually is or how amazing everyone else’s is. White brilliantly taps into the horse-blinders trap that ensnares people once they start going down the self-loathing spiral. Everything is filtered through Brad’s glum, self-pitying worldview — the one he’s written for himself in which he’s the hapless loser felled by an uncaring universe that has decided to bless everyone else with success.

As Brad and Troy go on their East Coast college tour, Brad’s issues about money and status flare up in weird ways. As he hangs out in the lobby during his son’s Harvard interview, he makes a show of bragging about Troy to the other parents, announcing in a pseudo-blasé manner, “I’m pretty sure Harvard is going to be in the running.” When thinking about his saintly, adoring wife — whose work demands keep her from going on the trip — he suddenly rationalizes away all her years of devotion by musing on the fact that, since she’s basically pretty easy-going, she doesn’t have high standards. (After all, why else would she have possibly married him?) And after first fearing that Troy could end up as unsatisfied as he is, Brad reverses course, becoming anxious that, if Troy becomes a big-time celebrity, then dear old Dad’s little nonprofit will look even more measly by comparison.

It’s bad enough that the rest of the world thinks Brad is a failure — what if his own kid realizes it, too?

Stiller has a history of playing neurotics in indie comedies like Your Friends & Neighbors, Greenberg and While We’re Young, which capitalize on the everyman angst that initially made him a star in There’s Something About Mary and the Night at the Museum movies. In his indies, that energy is darker and more desperate, but he’s never been more vulnerable than he is in Brad’s Status. The movie mocks Brad’s persistent need to compare himself to others — and to use those comparisons to tear himself down — but it’s also incredibly kind about how people reach middle age and start to panic, looking at their lives as a catalog of things they didn’t accomplish.

Specifically, that plays out when Brad meets a few college students who know Troy. From their young, idealistic perspective, Brad is actually kind of a rock star, trying to make a better world and eschewing the need to accumulate a lot of wealth and material possessions. And for a brief moment, he starts to feel good about himself. But then comes another wave of disgust. One of the students asks him for life advice. Without hesitating, Brad tells her to sell out and make a lot of money — that’s the only way to have enough power to effect change, he explains. His cynical, defeated answer strips away all the respect she had for him.

When you read the New Yorker profile, what you’re struck by is that, while Stiller is expressing universal insecurities of not measuring up, there’s something gross about being in his position and still wanting every director to think of him for every good project (and that his wife needs to remind him that Tom Cruise once sent him cupcakes as a marker of box-office success). Ironically, that’s part of the point of Brad’s Status, which takes a scalpel to the noxious self-regard inherent to a midlife crisis. From the outside, Brad doesn’t have much to complain about. An amazing wife? A great kid? No major illnesses in the family? He’s one of the lucky ones — he can afford to wonder if the grass is greener somewhere else because he enjoys the luxuries that allow for such minute comparisons.

As someone bluntly informs Brad, “You have enough.”

Nobody’s expecting Stiller, Brad or any of us to fully give up this fiendish obsession with status. But if we’re lucky enough, we’re allowed a few moments to recognize how grateful we should be. It’s the gift Stiller gives audiences with Brad’s Status — and I hope he saved some of it for himself.