There are very few movies that I go into with no prior knowledge of so, going to see the Jack Black lead The D Train for me was a bit of a treat, having only known it had debuted at Sundance and nothing else.
I’ll stand firm that that is how The D Train is meant to be seen.
For the sake of the story, there is very little way for me to talk about this film without spoiling anyone so-from this paragraph down be wary if you haven’t seen it yet. This is the spoiler free version: Where it fails as a comedy, it makes up for in its quieter, sadder moments and works better as character study than a “Jack Black” comedy. Few laughs register but still, there’s a film worth seeing underneath some of the broader and meandering moments. Read with caution if you’re going to go past this paragraph.
Black’s character, Dan Landsman, is obsessed with his High School reunion, putting in an irritating amount of enthusiasm and effort into something his fellow alumni don’t have the energy for. His abrasive attitude leaves him with essentially no friends except for his wife, Stacey (Kathryn Hahn), and his boss played by the always likable Jeffrey Tambor. One night he sees an old high school acquaintance, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), on a national commercial and, convinced that Lawless has achieved the fame only he and other members of his town could dream of, makes it his mission to get him to come to their reunion. As he tells the alumni board, if Lawless comes, so will the rest of their graduating class.
To get Oliver’s attention, he has to schedule a trip to L.A. that creates one of the more unnecessary subplots where Dan lies to his boss and tells him it’s a business meeting. There’s enough action going on in the basic narrative that in the end this subplot just leaves the story feeling bloated.
Dan meets Oliver, and they spend the weekend partying, drinking, taking drugs and for the most part having a great time, each of them fulfilling a need to seem and feel important. Dan doesn’t realize it, but Oliver isn’t this self-assured star that he believes him to be and simply rides on the image of what it is to “make-it” in Hollywood.
If Dan were to mess up this weekend (as it typically the case in this vein of comedy), I would have assumed he’d sleep with another woman and that would be the main conflict of the film. Or, Dan would get insecure about Oliver’s instant popularity with their hometown and his jealousy over that would begin a line up of awkward encounters and secondhand embarrassment inducing scenes. This speaks to how conditioned I am and likely we are as viewers to expect certain tropes and certain ideologies that we don’t even think about when processing. Of course, Dan will sleep with a woman, he’s written to be straight! He’s played by Jack Black! Who cares if Oliver made a passing comment about being bisexual (or pansexual since he said he “doesn’t do labels”).
So, no. I wasn’t expecting for Dan and Oliver to hook up. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to not end in a series of “gay panic” moves from Dan. I was surprised by the tangible chemistry between Black and Marsden in this moment. This is when the movie got interesting.
Sad sack characters and obnoxious man children are often seen tropes, but few are quite like Dan. He’s insecure and needy while equally delusional and arrogant. Black is always at his best when directors push him to be more than an elastic face and yelling, and at times, his portrayal harkens back to his impressive turn in Bernie. Dan isn’t panicked because he had sex with a man but rather scared about what it means to him later as he becomes more and more fixated on Oliver and his status quo.
Marsden gives the film’s best performance as Oliver, making sure that we get a peek at the sadness lying underneath the façade. He’s an easily likable onscreen presence and makes the character more than his basic parts. Again, he and Black share a surprisingly strong chemistry, so that when the two get together early in the film, I’m not surprised because of the pairing, but because the film did it with so little fanfare.
It’s a shame the movie surrounding this relationship is built on much more flimsy grounding. Directors and writers Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul could have easily taken out the entire work subplot. While the storyline with the son is nice at times, it is also largely inconsequential to the film’s narrative, aside from a third act moment. It needed trimming, and it needed to focus on the stories most interesting subject: Dan and Oliver.
For all of its flaws, I can’t help but be excited over a film like The D Train, which isn’t afraid to play with the notions of sexuality without labeling the film as such. It’s a film about a relationship and it plays it as it should be–normal. This is our lives today, so why can’t we see it onscreen more often?
The D Train is out now.