'The D Train': Film Review

An odd and dark comedy with a welcome bizarre turn by Jack Black.

The dark comedy stars Jack Black and James Marsden in the story of a high school reunion head who tries locate the most popular guy in his class.

The dark and sometimes funny The D Train is a feel-bad comedy, in that one feels bad for what happens to every character in the film and bad for sometimes being taken to places that feel more implausible than just transgressive. After not getting the career bump he should have for his great performance in Richard Linklater’s Bernie four years ago, it’s good to see Jack Black front-and-center again playing a very strange man in a feature film. But his character is so harmful to so many people for no reason other than his own unfinished business from high school that it’s a legitimate impulse just to want to get away from the guy much sooner than the film permits. The talented cast and pervasive waywardness will appeal to some, but commercial prospects look limited.

Although he has what appear to be a nice wife (Kathryn Hahn) and teenage son (Russell Posner) and a steady job at a consulting firm, the paunchy Dan Landsman (Black) remains beset by a sort of inferiority complex carried over from school days, when he was considered desperately uncool. This is exacerbated whenever he participates in high school reunion organizing, which forces him to deal with the very same people who scorned him years before. 

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You’d think he’d learn. But this year he seizes upon a far-fetched chance to finally turn the tables on his nemeses; chancing to see a TV suntan lotion commercial starring hunky former classmate Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), Dan figures that, if he can deliver this “star” to the reunion, he himself will at long last also become cool in the eyes of those who have so long disdained him.

To this end, he concocts an excuse to make a business trip from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, where he will personally convince Oliver to make the reunion scene. Unfortunately, the ruse involves pretending to Dan’s boss Bill Shurmur (Jeffrey Tambor) that a potential lucrative deal awaits them on the Coast, but it sounds so appealing that Bill decides he’s got to go, too.

Bill is one of the numerous amusing small conceits concocted by screenwriters Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel, here making their joint directorial debuts. Bill is charmingly and hopelessly antiquated; there are no computers in his offices, he personally still uses a rotary phone and he likes to conduct business man-to-man, with handshakes at the end. Dan will probably be fired if he can’t produce a man for his boss to meet with in L.A., but he finds a solution worthy of a good farce.

That would be Oliver. The one student from high school who got out and, to his former fellow students, looks to have made good is actually a dissolute and infrequently employed pretty boy on the downswing. If he were successful, he’d have no time for the likes of Dan. But he’s able to impress him by saying hi to Dermot Mulroney (in a cameo) at a nightclub and takes the bug-eyed Dan on a whirlwind nocturnal tour of L.A., even if it projects a rather antiquated notion of what’s hot in town — the Strip, the Roxy, the Whiskey?

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It would be uncivilized to reveal what happens next, other than to say that it greatly changes the dynamic between the two men, and no one could be more surprised at the developments than is Dan. Still, they pull off the business ruse with Bill, and Dan gets what he came for: Oliver’s attendance at the reunion.

Inevitably, the reunion is destined to climax the film. But if one imagines a raucous event at which Dan is finally accepted into the fold due to his new Hollywood association, one would be more than a few degrees off course, as there is a great deal that happens back in Pittsburgh before that. Lead characters in farce are almost by definition put into dire jeopardy in the final act, but very possibly never in the manner Dan is here. Some may buy it, but from several perspectives what takes place simply seems beyond the pale dramatically; it’s hard to believe things would go as far as they do. Granted, some of this is farce, but if the spectator loses the willingness to invest in the conceits of the authors of farce, then all is lost.

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To be sure, there are funny moments here, and the actors make sure there’s something worth watching here nearly all the time. Playing a man who can scarcely conceal his multiple resentments under his oddly prim, fastidious, sometimes even mincing mannerisms, Black demonstrates that his comic reflexes remain very sharp.

Marsden is magnetic and completely convincing as the hardly working actor who, for reasons of his own, finds Dan worth hanging out with for a time. Once the action returns to Pennsylvania, a very odd side plot mushrooms into Oliver becoming a sexual adviser to 15-year-old Zach, whose girlfriend wants to have a three-way with another girl. Music, much of it from songs, plays a substantial role here. New Orleans doubled for Pittsburgh, of all places, in much of the film.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Production: Electric Dynamite, Ripcord, Londinium Productions

Cast: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Mike White, Kyle Bornheimer, Henry Zebrowski, Russell Posner, Jeffrey Tambor

Directors: Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel

Screenwriters: Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel

Producers: Mike White, David Bernad, Jack Black, Priyanka Matto, Ben
Latham-Jones, Barnaby Thompson

Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens

Production designer: Ethan Tobman

Costume designer: Meagan McLaughlin

Editor: Terel Gibson

Music: Andrew Dost

100 minutes