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‘American Dreamer’: The best proof yet that, as a dramatic actor, Jim Gaffigan is ready for his closeup

The camera keeps focusing on his expressive face as the comedian plays a sad-sack rideshare driver who gets in over his head.

Jim Gaffigan in “American Dreamer.”
Saban Films

Earlier this year, the affable and immensely likable comedian Jim Gaffigan starred in “Being Frank” as a self-centered lout who for some 18 years had two wives and two sets of children and somehow managed to keep each family in the dark about the other.

Compared to the character Gaffigan plays in “American Dreamer,” the aforementioned Frank is practically Fred Rogers.

Directed with claustrophobic, docudrama-style intensity by Derrick Borte (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Daniel Forte) and featuring a career-best dramatic performance by Gaffigan, “American Dreamer” is a dark and intense and sometimes brutally violent slice of rotted life.

With echoes of disenfranchised-loner films such as “Taxi Driver” and “Falling Down” and a plot device reminiscent of Michael Mann’s “Collateral,” this is the kind of harsh and unforgiving film that will enthrall some audience members — while others might head for the exits, especially after a certain plot development, and we’ll say no more about that.

Gaffigan’s Cam is a 50ish sad sack with anger management issues and a life in rapid downward spiral. He was laid off from his job with a tech company and is now eking out a living as a rideshare driver. He’s behind in his child support payments. When he makes an unscheduled stop at his former house to see his son, his ex-wife Becca (Tammy Blanchard) calls the police because Cam is legally prohibited from making such visits.

Cam’s ex asks if he’s taking his medication. His brother says Cam needs help and should be in some kind of facility. But Cam keeps insisting he’d be fine if only everyone in the world would stop sabotaging him.

Robbie Jones is a captivating presence as Mazz, a ruthless drug dealer who hires Cam to drive him around all day and deep into the night. As Mazz sees it, Cam and his car are literally the perfect vehicles for him to hide in plain sight as he conducts his shady business. Who’s going to take note of some unmemorable nebbish driving a plain sedan around town?

Cam cringes when he bears witness to Mazz pistol-whipping an underling. He looks on with a twinge of envy when Mazz visits his girlfriend Marina (Isabel Arraiza in a powerful performance) and their toddler son, Prince. He tolerates a steady stream of putdowns and insults from Mazz.

Of course, Cam can bail at any time. After the next stop, he can speed away and block Mazz from calling or texting, and just disappear into the background.

But Cam remains at Mazz’s beck and call, first because he needs the money and he doesn’t have anything else to do — and then because he hatches a plan to extort a large amount of cash from Mazz.

It is not a good plan. It is a disastrously flawed plan. It is a plan that will set off a chain reaction of violent events.

Though not overtly political, “American Dreamer” has a consistent undertone of social commentary, from that sardonic title to the Smiley Face rearview mirror air freshener silently mocking Cam’s despair to a scene when Cam sees a homeless woman with her cart of possessions across the street, and seems to finally accept (at least for a moment) the reality that his comfortable middle-class existence is a thing of the distant past, and he’s one setback away from joining that woman on the street.

This is hardly the first time Jim Gaffigan has demonstrated his dramatic range. He drew raves for performance in “That Championship Season” on Broadway, and he has done solid character work in films such as “Chappaquiddick” and last month’s “Them That Follow.”

In “American Dreamer,” much of Gaffigan’s performance takes place within the confines of that car, resulting in get one close-up take after another — which only serves to magnify the powerful subtlety of the work.