According to its trailer, The D Train is a wacky comedy about a middle-aged guy named Dan (Jack Black) who takes his position as an organizer of his high school’s class reunion way, way too seriously. Despondent at his inability to get former classmates to RSVP for the 20-year reunion, Dan gets unduly excited one night when he spots Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), a popular alumnus, in a national TV commercial. All Dan needs to do, he reasons, is persuade Oliver to attend; once word gets out that the big man on campus will be there—and is now a celebrity, to boot—the entire student body will show up. There’s a tiny hint in the trailer of a subplot in which Dan fakes a business trip, accompanied by his boss (Jeffrey Tambor), so that he can visit Oliver in Los Angeles. And then… who knows? Something happens, apparently. They party. Dan looks shellshocked on a plane. He starts to tell Oliver, with a concerned expression “What happened in L.A.—” and Oliver cuts him off with “Dan, it’s in the past.” There’s plenty of footage indicating that Oliver does attend the reunion. So what’s The D Train about?
Since IFC, which picked up the film following its Sundance premiere in January, has chosen not to reveal that information (which occurs pretty early on and arguably constitutes the premise), spilling it in a review seems unwarranted, though some reviews will surely do so. It’s not terribly hard to guess, really. Making their first feature, the writing-directing duo of Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul have pushed a particular envelope further than it could probably have been pushed even as recently as half a dozen years ago, at least in a movie with stars as big as Black and Marsden. What’s remarkable is how earnestly The D Train treats this subject in the context of what is otherwise a typically broad Jack Black comedy. Mogel and Paul set up a potentially hilarious (if familiar) scenario—Oliver, who’s not nearly as successful as Dan assumes, will pose as a CEO for the benefit of Dan’s boss, thereby proving he can really act—and then they toss it aside, along with most of the laughs. The D Train metamorphoses into a drama about Dan’s confusion.
That’s an impressively bold move, and it might have been more fruitful with a different actor in Black’s role. Something about Black makes him always appear to be surrounded by air quotes, even when he’s working hard to play it straight. As written, Dan is a preposterously difficult role, requiring quicksilver shifts in mood and affect; he’d be a challenge for any actor, and while Black does a better job than one might expect, he’s not quite up to the task. Marsden, who has it considerably easier, gives perhaps the best performance of his career, subtly conveying the insecurity and desperation beneath Oliver’s cool exterior. (A scene in which he attempts to impress Dan by chatting up Dermot Mulroney, playing himself, is cringe comedy at its finest.) Ultimately, though, he, too, is at the mercy of The D Train’s wobbly tone. At one point, the film verges on becoming downright offensive, simply because it’s trying to be serious and uproarious simultaneously. It’s a mess, but it’s a commendable mess. Bonus points for ambition and nerve.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not disclosed in this review, visit The D Train’s Spoiler Space.