Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Russell Posner
Written and Directed by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel (feature-film debut for both)
Yes, the premise is far-fetched, a bit stilted at times and even off-putting. It has one foot firmly planted in comedy and the other in drama, and usually it's hard for any film to successfully keep its footing in both. But damn, if The D Train(opening today) wasn't oddly fascinating and rich. It's one of the strangest films I've seen in years, and there is no question that it will not be for everyone. But the truths that are touched on beneath the layers of situational comedy - powered by two great, unexpectedly nuanced performances - kept me engaged and enthralled right on through to the very end.
Jack Black is an absolute master of playing a certain type of character (See Bernie, or this film, for shining examples). He's like a "closer" in baseball...he has a certain skill set and he's at the top of the list of people who can do what he can. He may not be a leading man in the traditional sense, and he clearly can't pull of certain roles, but his Dan Landsman character in The D Train is right in his sweet spot. A loving extroverted persona that instantly connects with the audience, matched with an underlying uncomfortableness with his own self. Also a darkness, a sadness. Black does it like no other.
In the film, Dan is the self-appointed chairman of his 20-year high school reunion. He's the kind of schlub that refers to himself as "D Money" or "D Train" even when others don't, a cherubic version of Rob Schneider's "Richmeister" SNL "makin' copies" guy with much less . He has managed to marry (Kathryn Hahn) and has a teenage son (Russell Posner), but we gather that he's the type of guy who never left high school, mentally. Popularity is still the driving virtue, and Dan continues to roll through life looking for something, someone, that will validate him in the eyes of his peers.
He finds that in Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), a former popular guy from his class who Dan discovers has now "made it" in LA, as a TV commercial actor and spokesman for Banana Boat tanning lotion. Dan dreams of walking into the reunion, best buds with this dude whom already will be identified as one of the "cool kids," and a person who went on to find real success. This of course, will translate into acceptance of Dan and erase years of pain that only a picked-on geek can identify with.
Dan decides to trick his clueless boss (Jeffrey Tambor) into flying him out to LA to meet with a "potential client" for their firm. On his boss's dollar, he tracks down Oliver and befriends him. Lawless introduces him to his "working actor" lifestyle, of going to clubs, partying, doing hard drugs and rubbing shoulders with the stars. Dan is more than smitten, he becomes obsessed. He has so little self-worth that he is literally willing to do anything to not only get Oliver to attend the reunion, but to just have a friend in general.
That's when the movie turns, sharply. I wouldn't dare spoil it here, but let's just say that the storyline goes into areas we are not used to seeing in comedies starring well-known actors. The rest of the film becomes not about the reunion or Dan's ability to recruit Oliver per se, but about the emotional and psychological affects that the experience with Oliver has had on Dan's life.
And though this isn't a "laugh-a-minute" comedy, nor a deep-seeded drama, it is a film that does have something to say. It's a character study of a broken man (or men), about being fake and the affects that that has when kept up over the course of several years. Elements of the story feel familiar, but there is no question that it breaks new ground, and will surely test the measures of what current audience members will be comfortable with.
There are several small moments that speak volumes, and both Black and Marsden give true performances. If either of them would have played their characters as anything but real people, this movie would have possibly entered slapstick territory.
The old adage that "you can't love others if you don't love yourself first" is at the heart of the story. Dan is a man so empty and so hurt, that he doesn't see the pain or hurt that he is causing others around him, namely his wife, his child and his boss. It's also a film that deals with the "grass is always greener" theory, and through Marsden's equally broken character, we learn what we already know: That the grass on the other side of the fence usually ends up being an equal shade of green. This is not ground-breaking stuff, but here it is definitely dealt with in an eye-opening way.
The film might have wrapped up a little too cleanly and perfectly, but The D Train took me for an unexpected, surprisingly thoughtful ride. Here's a guy who does the unimaginable, but you believe everything that happens. And even though the film stretches out its messages to extreme degrees, you end up relating to some of its themes: Our needs to please others, the importance of being true to ourselves, of finding out our limits and limitations. And when you find that you share these thematic struggles with the likes of Dan Landsman - albeit on a smaller scale - it is a dirty, distressing feeling indeed.
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