“I felt like the world was rubbing my nose in something,” observes Brad (Ben Stiller), a reasonably well-off owner of his own nonprofit company, early in the film. He’s married to a beautiful and happy wife (Jenna Fischer), with a brilliant teen son (Austin Abrams) preparing to apply to colleges, and yet he’s mired in self-loathing and doubt, thanks to the fact that his best friends from college have all seemingly lapped him in life: Craig (Michael Sheen) is a former White House staffer who’s now an acclaimed author and TV talking head; Billy (Jemaine Clement) is a former tech bro who retired young and now lives in Hawaii, surfing and leading a chill, polyamorous existence with two perpetually bikini-clad blondes; Jason (Luke Wilson) is an investment banker who flies around in his own jet and plays oligarch; Nick (White) is a celebrity whose latest home was just in Architectural Digest. As Brad looks around at his own decidedly un-Architectural Digest-worthy existence, everything feels like a mistake or an obstacle. Did his wife’s general contentment stifle his ambition? Did his desire to do good kill his chances at money and success? And what was he thinking moving to Sacramento?
Some years ago, Stiller blew a hefty wad of studio money and goodwill on an ill-advised adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. This is the Walter Mitty movie he should have made. He nails the part of a guy whose dreams have corroded into regrets, and who refuses to face the world as it is — in all its messiness and uncertainty and, yes, beauty.
The character’s despair, however, is largely illusory, and his thoughts can turn on a dime. When he discovers that his son Troy’s college counselor thinks the boy, a musical prodigy, can get into Harvard, Brad’s vision of his friends’ lives immediately changes; he starts imagining that they’re actually unhappy — that their bratty, entitled kids pale in comparison to the obviously fame-bound Troy. Regardless of whether he’s mired in gloom or giddy with pride, Brad can never shake off the sense of competition. He continues to define his life in terms of how he stacks up against others.
That leads him, predictably, into some squirm-worthy situations: a futile attempt to upgrade his economy seat to business class in order to impress his son; a brief freak-out at the Harvard admissions office when Troy’s interview doesn’t go as planned; an indulgent wallow into his own problems when he meets up with his son’s friends; a brief fantasy about pulling a Billy and running off to Hawaii with Troy’s beautiful female pals. At times, it all feels like it’s leading to a big, climactic clusterfuck — a final, hilarious interrogation and humiliation of Brad, in which all his fears will be aired out in public. But White has something different on his mind: He never lets things go totally crazy. He pulls back at just the right moments. Refusing to turn Brad into an object of ridicule in turn renders the film even scarier, and more tense. It’s funny, and it’s terrifying, because it’s all so sickeningly honest.