Alibi V.24 No.19 • May 7-13, 2015 

Film Review

The D Train

Bromantic dramedy tries to be edgy, settles for “edgeish”

The D Train ()

Directed by Andrew Mogel & Jarrad Paul

Cast: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn

OK, now the party can get started!
OK, now the party can get started!

Commercials for The D Train would have you think it’s just another raunchy bromance about a middle-aged loser (Jack Black) who tries to talk a popular jock (James Marsden) into returning home for a wild, 20-year high school reunion. At its absolute most reductive, that’s what it is. But first-time directors Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel (who wrote the underwhelming Jim Carrey comedy Yes Man and Jonah Hill’s unwatched animated series “Allen Gregory”) have something far darker and edgier in mind. While it works quite well in parts—thanks to a game cast and a surprising central twist on the formula—the film never quite pushes the envelope far enough. That seems to have rubbed off on the film’s advertisers, who have displayed similar skittishness and opted for the safe route, labeling it a funny buddy comedy and nothing more.

Black shows up first on screen as Dan Landsman, a middle-aged schlub doing his damnedest to distract himself from the fact that he’s a nobody going nowhere in a nothing little suburb of Pittsburgh. He does that mostly by throwing himself body and soul into his role as head of his old high school’s alumni committee. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Dan takes the assignment so seriously, few people are actually interested in attending the school’s upcoming reunion. It also doesn’t help matters that Dan was a total zero 20 years ago. Few people can actually remember his name or face, which is one reason he spends so much time trying to craft his own nickname. (D-man? D-slice? D-fresh?) It’s not working.

Surfing the late-night TV airwaves one lonely eve, Dan stumbles across a suntan lotion commercial and recognizes the face of the pitchman. It’s his old classmate Oliver Lawless (James Marsden). Oliver was the class stud, a star basketball player who disappeared off to Hollywood decades ago. Inspired by the sighting, Dan hatches a plan to go out to Los Angeles, find Oliver and convince him to come to the reunion. This, he imagines, will both spur on RSVPs and make our man Dan the hero of the day. Scared to tell his wife or boss about the hairbrained idea, Dan fabricates a “business trip”—a ruse that immediately blows up in his face and finds him traveling to the West Coast with his boss (the great Jeffrey Tambor) in tow.

The film’s plot features a make-or break twist that isn’t brave enough to be the transgressive moment it could (or should) be. It’s enough to elicit a nervous giggle from audience members but isn’t quite the stop-and-think moment its creators were aiming for.

Miraculously, Dan manages to locate Oliver. Through rose-tinted glasses, Dan sees a hotshot Hollywood success story. What Oliver is, in reality, is much clearer to us viewers. He isn’t all that different from Dan. He’s a faded pretty boy pushing 40. His “cool” status from high school has clearly not carried over into adulthood. His biggest claim to fame in Hollywood is landing a single TV commercial. But to delusion-loving Dan, Oliver is a god. Desperate for a little friendship and a bit of that unconditional worship he got back in high school, Oliver takes Dan on a tour of Hollywood party spots.

A lot of booze, a bunch of drugs and a touch of soul searching later, and the two are bonding way, waaay more than either of them ever thought possible. Oliver even gives Dan an assist, pretending to be an LA business mogul for his clueless boss. But when Dan returns home, more middle-aged crazy than before, his ever-lengthening trail of lies both energizes his boring, little life and threatens to bite him in the ass—hard.

The D Train is a funny film. But it’s got far more moments of sad, emotional truth. At the dinner table, Dan ignores both his loving wife (Kathryn Hahn, currently starring in Showtime’s “HAPPYish”) and his sensitive teenage son (Russell Posner). The teen tries to solicit dad’s advice about asking out a cute girl who he’s heard through the grapevine likes him. Dad counsels against it. It could just be a trick. Classmates could be setting the kid up for a cruel prank. Probably best to ignore her. This advice is the opposite of helpful, but it says volumes about dad’s teenage years.

Black continues the solid, understated work he did in Richard Linklater’s Bernie four years ago. He comes across well as the defeated man who refuses to let the world know how beaten down and insecure he really is. He does it mostly by talking a good game, slinging out awkward dude-bro catchphrases and pasting a frozen grin on his face no matter the circumstance. Marsden is even better, though, turning in what is probably his best role to date. It’s easy to imagine a cool/crazy role like this in the hands of someone like James Franco. But Marsden has always been rather milquetoast on screen. Here he manages to turn a self-absorbed, past-his-prime hedonist into a likable, authentic character.

The film’s plot features a make-or break twist that isn’t brave enough to be the transgressive moment it could (or should) be. It’s enough to elicit a nervous giggle from audience members but isn’t quite the stop-and-think moment its creators were aiming for. Whenever things get too hardcore, the film retreats to safe, sitcom-style territory. Still, the altered dynamic between the main characters opens up a whole new emotional territory and pays off well in some third-act fireworks. I won’t go into details, but indie film watchers can probably name two or three films in the last few years that have attempted similar turns.

It’s hard to be funny and sad at the same time. Just ask a French clown. There are moments when this film’s comedy borders on parody and moments when its drama gets implausible. But The D Train never fully derails itself, leaving audiences laughing, crying and grateful they are no longer the people they were in high school.