Austin Abrams and Ben Stiller in Brad’s Status (Jonathan Wenk/Amazon Studios)

Ben Stiller stars as Brad Sloan, a midlife Gen-X’er who embarks with his son on tours of three prospective universities in the Boston area. The trip, meant to be a forced father-son bonding time constructed by Brad’s wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), instead becomes an opportunity for Brad to reflect on all of the major decisions of his life. Writer-director Mike White’s film is part character study and part treatise on the current state of the white American male.

Over the course of the trip, Brad excruciatingly goes over the pros and cons of everything: his marriage; his settling down in a mundane city like Sacramento, CA; and, of course, his choice to work in the nonprofit sector instead of selling out like all of his old college buddies.

However, Brad is practically clueless as to son Troy’s (Austin Abrams from Paper Towns) status as a musical prodigy, his stellar grades, and genius-level IQ. This revelation is slipped into the interactions, making it all the more disconcerting that Brad is so self-centered he never stops thinking about himself to be involved with his own child’s life.

When Troy misses his Harvard interview, Brad calls up an old buddy, Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), a political pundit who also happens to teach a class at the university. This act of overreaching causes Troy embarrassment. He argues that it may even hurt his shot of getting in. I here worried that the film would turn into a series of Brad going all Clark W. Griswold, trying too hard to pull strings to get his son into Harvard, turning this into National Lampoon’s College Visit. Luckily, after the Harvard interview stunt, the focus turns back to Brad’s caustic evaluation of himself.

The most entertaining moments are definitely Brad’s imaginings of what his college friends’ lives are like. These fantasy sequences are always brightly lit, with his contemporaries (Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jermaine Clement, and White) and their smiling families and/or polyamorous partners running hand-in-hand, in slow-motion toward private jets, the ocean, or whatever their destinations. Everything in their lives looks better to Brad than his humdrum life in Sacramento. His envious imagination ups the ante, making his friends’ lives so over-the-top there’s no way (most) of it can be real.

What makes White’s film work on a much higher level than just “white people problems” is that there is definitely a mental health issue going on. There are several moments when Troy calls Brad out on being a little too intense and to stop pulling some “crazy shit.” Is Brad having a nervous breakdown? The eerie thing that White’s script expertly keeps nudging toward is that this isn’t just an isolated event: Brad is like this all the time, has always been like this, and that is, in fact, why he has ended up where he is. Only Brad would rather bitterly obsess over his friends’ Instagram accounts than admit to his own faults.

Stiller has always been able to straddle that line between comedy and drama better than many of his contemporaries, such as Will Ferrell, Mike Meyers, and Adam Sandler. The case could even be made that he’s a better dramatic actor than a comedian, seeing how so many of his comedies have been dead on arrival (The Watch, Zoolander 2). He’s been solid in movies like Greenberg and Permanent Midnight that call for a leading man who can be funny but a little askew mentally. Here he seems to have somehow transformed his physical appearance; Brad constantly looks both exhausted and like he’s about to freak. Stiller’s voice-overs are always in a bitter monotone, nailing the distinction between outer, regular-guy Brad and inner, sociopath Brad.

Abrams as Troy keeps up well with Stiller, although his character isn’t really given that much range of emotion. For the most part, he’s an awkward, artsy kid, aloof with fleeting moments of ambition. Certainly part of the movie’s point is that Troy’s college tour experience becomes overshadowed by Brad’s undergoing crisis. It’s Troy’s moment, but everything is about Brad.

This is White’s second time directing a feature film, after 2007’s Year of the Dog, which also featured a character undergoing a mental breakdown, and he is now one of the most successful screenwriters working in Hollywood. This year he is not only responsible for this film, but he also wrote the Salma Hayek–John Lithgow political drama Beatriz at Dinner. For a sense of how wide his range is, you should also know he leant a hand on, of all things, The Emoji Movie. Perhaps most famously he wrote School of Rock and the cult hit in which he also starred, Chuck & Buck.

White’s work, while entertaining, always works with greater themes. The strongest moment here is when Brad has a conversation with Ananya (Shazi Raja), a young Pakistani woman who knew Troy in high school and meets him and Brad while they are at Harvard. Brad commandeers Ananya from a night out with her friends to tell her his life story, all of his regrets. It’s a great scene, and one that certainly had to happen or otherwise this film would have been criticized for not being self-aware enough to know it’s about a privileged white guy having a midlife crisis. All of the friends Brad compares himself against are not too different from him: white middle-aged men. Ananya points out that Brad is actually quite successful. He’s just not filthy rich, but that’s the mode of thought that has prevailed. The screenplay implicitly asks, why can’t white men give that up?

At moments Brad’s Status is a difficult film to watch, especially if you are approaching middle age yourself. But going back to Chuck and Buck, White knows how to make an audience feel uncomfortable and then stop and think about why we feel uncomfortable. The world looks a lot different than it did back when Brad went to college (and, I might add, since Reality Bites). To ask if Brad will be okay is to ask the larger question, will Generation X be okay?

Written and Directed by Mike White
Released by Amazon Studios
USA. 101 min. Rated R
With Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement, and Jenna Fischer