BEN Stiller once again taps into his more serious, neurotic side for this intimate midlife crisis comedy-drama that distils life into one quietly observant, cringe-filled concoction.

Stiller plays Brad Sloane, a middle-aged man with a comfortable life in the suburbs with his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and 17-year-old son Troy (Austin Abrams). And yet something feels off for him – an intangible lack of satisfaction with where he’s at in life and the time he has left.

Things boil over when he takes a trip with his son to look at potential colleges and finds he needs the help of past friends – all with more successful, high-flying lives – to help secure the much sought-after application interviews at Harvard. Understandably Troy is embarrassed by his dad’s behaviour as he looks to attend the school where his music hero teacher works and tries to impress ambitious student Ananya (Shazi Raja).

Writer-director Mike White takes a fairly compelling, if familiar, path down a lane of neuroses and midlife anxiety. The situations in which Brad finds himself are often knuckle-chewingly awkward, whether he’s trying to get to know his son’s potential college friends or begging for approval over the dinner table with estranged, comparatively carefree friend Craig (Michael Sheen).

White avoids Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque laughs for something more internal and subdued, positioning the character’s hang-ups, worries and inability to act “normally” around others as a character flaw he feels the need to overcome rather as a comedic badge of honour.

Stiller is well-versed in portraying this kind of tightly-wound angst, having mined it in everything from The Royal Tenenbaums to Greenberg and last year’s The Meyerowitz Stories. Particularly in the scenes when it’s just him and his son, the film reaches high to notes of real emotional tenderness that might have something to do with it being inspired by White’s own relationship with his father.

From its opening moments the drama smacks of first-world, white male privilege problems that we’ve seen plenty of and feel particularly indulgent these days. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t let that aspect escape without scrutiny.

In its most memorable scene, Brad lays out his perceived life issues of lacking fulfilment and success to Ananya. “Just don’t ask me to feel bad for you, you’re doing just fine,” she replies. “Trust me, I promise you, you have enough.” It’s a golden nugget that lets you give the film the benefit of the doubt as being as much an examination of its own status as the main character’s.