by Philip Price
“The D Train” is an odd movie. It's an interesting one, don't get me wrong, but it's an odd one for sure. I'm a rather faithful comedy fan and have said many times on this site before that I carried a rather rabid affinity for the fan appointed "Frat Pack" that originally consisted of Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Owen and Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Any time any of these guys decided to head up a film there was a desperate hope they would include a couple of the others in the proceedings. Soon, Judd Apatow and his gang emerged and the universe has been expanding ever since. In the wake of this merger it always felt like Black was somewhat left behind. This was obviously unfortunate given Black is one of those guys who can make you laugh with a simple facial expression, but his output has become increasingly stale since hitting a high mark in 2008 with “Tropic Thunder” and “Kung-Fu Panda.” Looking back through his filmography it is almost alarming how little he has done in the past few years with his last out and out feature being the horribly marketed and little-seen “The Big Year” in 2011. With “The D Train,” Black seems to be making something of a statement in that, at the very least, he'd like to see his career go in a more mature way, one that puts him in the position of actually investing in his characters and developing his skills rather than simply cashing the quick check and making the same faces. We've seen this before from the comic, especially in the underrated “Bernie,” but here it is more of a concentrated effort than the seemingly haphazard way in which Black picked projects prior.
In “The D Train Black” plays an average joe who gets caught up in a psychological game with the popular guy from his graduating class. He is a man not akin to taking risks or doing things differently and yet there is a need to win the approval of this guy he hasn't seen in twenty years who has seemingly done everything in his life Black's character would have been too afraid to risk. If Black is going out on a limb with this role he may very well have been doing so because he feels the same way about his career as his character does his high school reunion. From the outset, Black makes it clear that his Dan Landsman has never been the cool guy. Instead, he is the one who went to community college down the road from his high school, graduated and secured a job in the same small town while marrying a girl from his high school and settling down to have a couple of kids. On the other end of the spectrum is Oliver Lawless (James Marsden). Lawless was the epitome of the cool kid in high school. You know the whole schtick about the one all the other guys want to be and the one all the girls want to be with? That was him. Marsden plays this facade up perfectly. The conflict and mind games come into play when Dan, who is the head of his high school reunion committee, is determined to get Oliver, who's now the face of a national Banana Boat ad campaign, to show up at their class reunion so everyone else will. The lies, deceit and lengths Dan goes to in order to make this happen, to claim a kind of validation, go further than even he expects them to.
Through these motions the film intends to be a very dark comedy that really strives to understand its material. The issues the film runs into though are not in the vein of understanding or knowing what to do with its material and the twist that sets things in motion, but instead come from the conflict of tone that is created as a result of a single scene that in turn produces more confusion and more sadness for the main character than I think both the audience and writer/directors Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel expected. As you watch the film it is hard to not want to laugh as the contrived set-up serves a purely comical outcome, but given the twists along the way and the dark turns it takes as far as Black's character is concerned, the laughs are tougher to come by because Black and the film do a fine job of communication his emotional state and we legitimately feel bad for the guy. Granted, this film isn't about the twist or the how or why around it happening, but rather exploring what happens after. The repercussions Dan faces from digging himself into this hole for no other reason than to feel relevant while ultimately not considering what he would get out of this supposed relevancy are what is most interesting about the film. Surprisingly, they are handled well given the rather slapdash vibe the first act of the film gives off, but the tone takes such a major shift that the movie finds it difficult to ground its footing in how it wants to explore the interesting territory it knows it has available to explore. “The D Train” is a solid enough film, it's simply hard to understand why Paul and Mogel felt the need to cloak their film in comedy clothing rather than committing to the inherent drama of it all.
Despite these tonal issues the directors have in approaching their material they have a great number of advantages at their disposal that help them bring their vision to life in a way they can at least feel good about. Black really shows some range here especially as the film delves more into its complicated and interesting second act. Dan, who by all accounts is a rather stand-up guy, can't stop thinking about what he's done and how he's ultimately betrayed everything he stood for previously. Emphasizing the natural human ability to get caught up in all we don't have rather than celebrating what we do, Dan fails to open his eyes and see Marsden's Oliver for what he really is and instead ends up being overcome with the facade Oliver is keeping up; wanting to believe the guy he once looked up to actually is the guy he believes him to be. If there is no hope for a guy like Lawless, what chance does he have? Both Black and Marsden are willing to go to the darkly comic places the script asks of them and Marsden is willing and able to play up every aspect of his character that needs to be felt in order for the audience to understand and accept the situation. As first time directors, Paul and Mogel work well with their characters and I like that they give Chromeo some love on the soundtrack, but moving forward if they can strike a finer balance between tone and story they might really be on to something cool.