If you’ve watched a Ben Stiller movie in the past ten years or so, you’ve seen it: the stuttering, stumbling line delivery, the awkward pauses, and the nervously furrowed brow. No matter the character he’s playing, these traits seem to define Stiller as a performer these days, barring a few wildly goofy exceptions like Tropic Thunder and Zoolander 2.
Like many comedians before him, Stiller has attempted in recent years to transition from straight comedy into nuanced, dramatic roles. But unlike his peers, he has done so without necessarily sacrificing his unique brand of comedy. Instead, he has put a version of the awkward, uncomfortable-in-his-own-shoes persona that he cultivated in earlier comedic roles to effective use in more serious roles.
Brad’s Status, an independent film that opened last week, offers perhaps the most extreme example to date of Stiller’s archetypal character being played for drama, while also highlighting the fact that in today’s environment of extraordinary political and social tension and economic disparity, this type of character is one only someone of Stiller’s privileged status could play.
As a comedian, Stiller’s had an interesting career. After gaining popularity through short mockumentaries, spoofs and sketches produced for programs like Saturday Night Live and The Ben Stiller Show, he broke out with larger roles in Heavyweights, If Lucy Fell, and Flirting with Disaster. From there, he directed a couple of films and acted in a steady stream of comedies and romantic comedies. While some of his roles were over-the-top and absurd, such as fitness guru White Goodman in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and male model Derek Zoolander in Zoolander, he began leaning more toward quieter, somewhat socially awkward characters in movies like Meet the Parents and Along Came Polly.
These roles showcased Stiller’s ability to capitalize on the humorous nature of awkward silences, as well as his talent for convincingly playing characters who are forced into uncomfortable situations and try to play it cool despite rarely knowing what to say or do. The success of early films utilizing Stiller in this capacity was probably what led him to gravitate toward similar roles later on.
As Stiller reached middle age, this character type evolved somewhat. One of the first examples of this is the Night at the Museum series, in which Stiller plays a struggling father who finds in his new job at the American Museum of Natural History the excitement he longs for, the confidence he lacks, and the connection with his son that he desires above all else.
In essence, Stiller began a pattern of portraying middle-aged, generally upper-middle-class men for whom life seems to be going well, but who are in some way dissatisfied or uncomfortable and thus seek a greater sense of fulfillment.
As Stiller began to progress into more dramatic roles, this persona served him well in films such as the Noah Baumbach-directed Greenberg and While We’re Young, as well as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in 2013. Walter Mitty is a particularly notable example, as in addition to starring in the lead role, Stiller also directed and co-produced the film, indicating a conscious choice to continue cultivating his now-familiar onscreen persona.
If the persona in question is starting to sound a bit too specific and narrow to be appealing to a wide audience, perhaps that’s because it is. Stiller and other white male performers have come under fire for playing alienating and unappealing characters that are so selfishly wrapped up in their own inconsequential problems that they fail to take note of the fact that they are financially stable, privileged white males. But Stiller is one of the few actors who started off using the type for primarily comedic purposes, then gradually evolved into applying it in dramas.
The majority of moviegoers are not able to relate to the crises of confidence that drive these characters because they themselves are not in the privileged position to actually worry about such truthfully unimportant concerns. Thus, for many, Stiller’s leading man is understandably unlikable, coming across as an ungrateful, whiny, selfish and defensive crybaby – the pinnacle of white male privilege.
But Stiller’s latest film stands apart by adding an intriguing layer of self-criticism to the established archetype, deepening the meaning of the actor’s performance and in a strange way serving as a timely portrait of a white man coming to grips with his own privilege in 2017.
On the surface, Brad’s Status can be viewed as yet another opportunity for Stiller to make use of his uncomfortable, self-centered, middle-aged persona in a dramatic performance. In the movie, Stiller plays Brad Sloan, the happily-married head of a non-profit who sets out on a trip to New England to visit prestigious colleges with his intelligent and talented teenage son Troy. Along the way, he reconnects with old friends from college who have found enormous success in one way or another. One has become a famous film director, another is a wealthy hedge fund manager, a third sold his tech company and retired in Hawaii at 40, and the last is a respected author and political pundit.
Naturally, Brad’s perception of his old friends leads him to take stock of his own life and compare his situation to theirs, which causes him to feel woefully inferior and somewhat empty. The movie thus follows his mid-life crisis of sorts, as he worries about decisions he’s made and wonders whether his son will feel similarly dissatisfied at his age.
As is often the criticism with such films, Stiller’s character comes across as maddeningly self-centered and almost unbelievably entitled. But what sets this film apart is that here, the supporting characters notice the absurdity of Brad’s complaints and are just as frustrated as most of the audience likely will be. Even Brad himself, through both his dialogue and the movie’s frequent voiceover narration, repeatedly apologizes for his own dissatisfaction and states that he knows he should be happy and that he acknowledges the ridiculousness of his own complaints.
Brad’s son Troy tells him that he needs to calm down and stop comparing himself to his old acquaintances, and Troy’s friend Ananya, a musician at Harvard, provides an even more biting criticism of Brad’s situation. After listening to him rant about how idealistic he once was and how disappointed he is in what he has become, she reminds him that he has no right to complain when others in the world are experiencing actual, tangible suffering, and when he has much to be grateful for. As she sharply puts it, “You’re fifty years old and you still think that the world was made for you.”
This line perhaps sums up the impact that the film could have on Stiller’s trademark archetype, whose function could change drastically in today’s world. Now that we as a culture have entered a period marred by political upheaval, frighteningly violent manifestations of racism, hate crimes, economic disparity, and globally-destructive natural disasters, Stiller’s socially-dissatisfied leading man serves not as a humorous and relatable underdog hero, but as a clear example of the type of self-absorbed, privileged person who enables the injustice ravaging the world and can’t find the time or the energy to care.
The writer and director of Brad’s Status, Mike White (himself a middle-aged white male), seems to have recognized this fact, though since his film still chooses to focus on Brad’s insignificant insecurities as its central conflict, in a way the movie somewhat troublingly legitimizes his worries. The mix of a privileged character’s perspective, privileged filmmakers, and a healthy dose of self-criticism and shame aimed at said privilege makes Brad’s Status a unique cocktail that’s tough to pin down as either a turning point in Stiller’s dramatic career or another example of the actor cashing in on a brand that has worked well in the past.
In any case, it will be interesting to see how audiences react to Brad’s Status, as critics have already begun to comment on the movie’s criticism of Stiller’s trademark character. It will be even more fascinating to see what Ben Stiller does next with his established persona. As a man of privilege and public influence, it will be up to him to decide how his privileged characters are approached in future films, and thus to ultimately determine his own cultural legacy.