- Kevin Harley
- 1 January 2018
Mike White's latest cringe comedy boasts delicate work from Ben Stiller
Ben Stiller gives typecasting a good name in his latest dispatch from midlife anxiety's frontline. Well-practised in narcissistic neurosis, Stiller rises above self-mockery to summon something more delicately real for writer-director Mike White (Chuck & Buck, Year of the Dog), a US indie pro specialising in sympathising with outsiders.
Stiller plays Brad Sloan, a comfortably successful family man convinced life is rubbing his nose in his failings, not least in relation to his deliriously successful old friends. We meet sad Brad as he takes his 17-year-old son Troy (Austin Abrams) to visit colleges in Boston, where Brad's insecurities hit DEFCON 1 levels as he's forced to contact high-flying old buddies to help secure Troy interviews. Not unreasonably, Troy is mildly mortified even before Brad moons over idealistic co-ed Ananya (Shazi Raja).
At this point, you'll have Brad's Status pinned as either a first-world wallow, or a satire of a midlife moron. But it's subtler than both. Ananya eloquently dismantles Brad's privilege for us, while White and Stiller maintain a healthy sense of Brad's relentless absurdity without stifling his humanity. Every comic bid lands on target, but believability is never surrendered for cheap gags.
A pitch perfect supporting cast provides ballast, fronted by Michael Sheen as a toxically blithe success story and Jemaine Clement as an over-aged surfer and weapons-grade sleaze (who still provokes Brad's envy). The younger set shine too: Raja is a picture of patient weariness as she endures Brad's moans, and Abrams projects rivers of nuance through one diffident expression. Brad's love for Troy, meanwhile, helps hint at the soul behind his self-absorption.
Tender and truthful in equal measure, this is a heartfelt cringe comedy with a bittersweet ache at its core, which might even merit a tear or two at the climax. Certainly, it reiterates how good a slightly-left-of-mainstream Stiller can be.
General release from Fri 5 Jan.