I feel for the poor soul who is tasked with marketing The D Train. The easy answer is to push it as a frat-boy buddy comedy, which it certainly is in a few ways. It is also so much more than that, but to explain why would be to spoil the fun. There is a best left unsaid second-act development which becomes the crux of the story. It will make a few viewers uncomfortable, but that’s sort of the point, and it elicits a remarkable performance from Jack Black, and perhaps a career-best turn from James Marsden.
Jack Black is Dan Landsman, a meek man who stuck around town after high school, took the first job he could get, married the girl next door, and played it safe. His one true pride is being the self-appointed head of the High School Reunion Committee. As he helps to plan their 20-year reunion, he can’t help but stay victim to the trappings of his perceived social status – he’s still the same loser he was in his school days. One night, he sees a Banana Boat commercial starring a former classmate, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), and is convinced that if he can get Oliver to attend the reunion, he has a shot at being cool (and maybe even getting invited for drinks at the hilariously named “Thirsty Alley” with the rest of the reunion committee). Dan hatches a plan to fly to LA and personally obtain Lawless’ RSVP … and that’s when things get very strange, very fast.
Tonally, the film is uneven, and I can’t help but feel like a rewrite or two could have cleaned up the script. Nonetheless, I think the swings in tone are part of the charm. As zany as the film can be, it also feels honest. It feels a lot like real life.
The subject matter is challenging. As a study of obsession and its tendency to bubble over into psychosexual territory, there is a lot to chew on and even admire. As a parable about perceived social branding there is an empathy that might be absent had The D Train been an all-out comedy. And therein lies why the movie doesn’t fully work. The required inability to commit to either comedy or drama leads to a film that fails at having its cake and eating it too, but the failure is noble, and well worth seeing.
James Marsden really steals the show here, and it’s wonderful to see Kathryn Hahn, a very talented comedian in her own right, get to show some dramatic chops. Such a strange movie demands a committed performance from its cast, and across the board every actor delivers. Even more impressive is how in tune they all are with the tonal ebbs and flows.
The D Train is not a perfect film by any stretch, but it’s an extremely bold take on a pretty standard story, done in a way that would not have been possible as recent as just a few years ago. I can’t say that it’s the most enjoyable thing in the world, but I don’t think it’s really trying to be. I love that.
Before I wrap this up, I think we should talk about Jack Black. Mark my words: the world doesn’t see it now, but Jack Black will be remembered as one of the greats. I’m talking Paul Newman-level here. Black is a tremendous performer, capable of doing anything that could be asked of him. If this were the vaudeville days, he’d be the king. He can sing, dance, create believable characters, make you laugh, make you cry. He can do “fatty falls down” just as well as he can do raw pathos. There’s nothing he can’t do except maybe a split, and I bet he can do a split. His performance in The D Train is certainly no Bernie, but I challenge you to find an actor that could play Dan Landsman any better. You won’t.
The D Train opens in Philly area theaters today.