A downbeat, naturalistic and admirably adult dramatic comedy, “Brad’s Status” is the story of a bright man who devotes most of his intellectual energy to pessimism and melancholy. He’s not a loser, but a frustrated guy in crisis. Midlife crisis. A self-defined second-rater. When you see him in bed, eyes wide open, it’s obvious that he’s seriously sad. But, like watching a slow-moving car accident, you can’t avert your eyes.

Brad is played by Ben Stiller with a brittle quality that he reserves for his work in funny, angsty films like “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “While We’re Young,” comedies of substance that are more about the characters’ misbehavior than the jokes. This challenging, fascinating role is his best performance to date.

When Brad’s fantasies measure his old friends’ cultural success, glamorous love lives and financial positions, the visions hit him like stomach acid. He’s not like them: a hot Hollywood director, a hedge fund manager, a tech millionaire and a famous author. How short of the top can your life be before you consider it a failure? How green must your grass be in order to compare it with that patch over there?

Brad’s in a state of continuous self-criticism, revisiting memories of his college experience and feeling inferior to classmates (portrayed by writer/director Mike White, Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement and Stiller’s “Tenenbaums” co-star Luke Wilson) whose accomplishments seem to overshadow his. His feelings about them are based around a sense of latent mutual hostility that could be entirely imaginary.

With razor-sharp control by White (“School of Rock’), the story is small in scope, which seems perfect for a tale about delicate personal matters. Neither White nor Stiller seems to care whether people sympathize with Brad. They simply want him to be seen for who he is, warts and all.

White doesn’t make Brad seem like a monster and/or basket case. As for Stiller, he approaches the part with honesty and psychological depth. Like Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation” or Jim Carrey in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” he becomes the audience’s proxy.

Brad has a life that, by any objective standard, is a dream come true. He lives comfortably in suburban Sacramento. His wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), is warm and supportive. Their incomes are middle-class, and short of a windfall inheritance from her parents, they’re likely to remain there. Their lengthy life spans are another issue that keeps him from falling asleep.

He’s about to lead his nearly perfect son Troy (Austin Abrams) on an East Coast college tour that includes visits to Harvard and his dad’s old school, Tufts. The implication that his life is short of his son’s potential haunts him. Brad runs a nonprofit organization that helps locate financing for social service agencies, but he thinks Troy’s musical talent is far more promising.

He’s wrestling with the confrontation between the cynicism and responsibilities of adult life, and his youthful dreams and hopes that never quite came true. Unable to let his inner child die, he’s the dysfunctional member of a warm, secure household bound by love that can’t quite become a team.

Brad’s disappointment isn’t the film’s entire focus. It’s not simplistic, but it does move to a qualified happy ending. At Harvard, he and Troy meet Ananya (Shazi Raja), an older student. Moved by the way she reflects the earnest political commitment that used to guide him, and by her youthful beauty, Brad meets her at a bar after Troy falls asleep.

The connection becomes an affirming, life-changing experience for Brad, whose views about his own perspective and even his emotions finally break free of their long ice jam.

Stiller has been in several similar films with a tonal mix of mirth and light drama, but none I can recall that can move viewers this close to tears.

 

Colin.Covert@startribune.com

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Twitter: @colincovert