The uneven career of Jack Black has had some delirious highs (The School of Rock) and gruesome lows (Gulliver’s Travels), but this comic actor has proved his chops often enough to merit serious consideration. (Why no one touted him for an Oscar for his starring role in Richard Linklater’s Bernie is beyond me.) He gives one of his better performances in The D Train, a comedy that’s almost too unassuming until it takes a major turn.
He plays Dan Landsman, a married father of two in Pittsburgh who variously calls himself D Man, D Fresh, D Slice, and other nicknames that start with “D” in a fruitless attempt to look cool. He’s the chairman of his high school’s alumni committee, mostly because nobody else wants to be, and so many people are opting out of the class’ 20-year reunion that he’s worried the event will be a bust. Then Dan chances to see his classmate Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) starring in a TV commercial for suntan lotion and decides on that flimsy evidence that Oliver is a famous actor. He resolves to travel out to L.A., and even takes his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) on the trip under false pretenses, to personally convince the former BMOC to attend the reunion.
The comedy doesn’t truly kick in until a queer development — and I mean that in both senses of the word — at the half-hour mark, when, after a night of partying, Oliver kisses Dan. Then Dan kisses him back, and they wind up having sex. This happens not because Dan is secretly gay, nor even because he’s in love with Oliver, but because he’s still chasing high-school popularity 20 years after graduation, and he thinks that some of Oliver’s mojo will rub off on him in bed. This turn in the plot deploys Black’s considerable skills as a farceur. He is hypnotic as Dan returns to Pittsburgh and vacillates madly between desperately wanting Oliver to come to the reunion and wanting him to stay away from his wife (Kathryn Hahn) and his friends. Black radiates panic at having his encounter get out, consternation when Oliver starts flirting with his wife, and possessive outrage when Dan starts talking about hooking up with women at the reunion. Writer-directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul even have the ingenuity to make this dovetail with the other subplot, as Oliver (prior to having sex with Dan) impersonates a CEO to make Dan look better in his boss’ eyes, only for Dan to watch unpredictable consequences ripple through his workplace. It all culminates in a scene at the reunion when all of Dan’s issues come churning angrily and drunkenly to the surface.
The main question is, why does this movie take a full 30 of its 100 minutes to get started? The filmmakers completely fail to make Dan’s pathetic neediness or his infatuation with Oliver funny during the first half hour. Nor can they get any laughs out of Dan’s settled domestic life or his stagnant work situation — we’re supposed to find it funny that Dan’s Luddite boss refuses to use computers. All of this dead time is more than just wasteful. It gives audiences a misleading impression of what’s going down later.
After that, however, things are generally good. Departing from his usual porcelain smoothness, Marsden excels as a scruffy guy with a casual attitude toward his prolific sex life, and he gets a hilarious scene as he advises Dan’s 14-year-old son (Russell Posner) on the logistics of having a three-way with two girls: “You gotta stack ’em. Like lawn chairs.” As for Hahn, she initially looks like she’s playing another sad overlooked wife, but this reliable and inventive comic actress hits some new funny notes of shock and betrayal after the truth about Dan’s wild night comes out.
No one upstages Black, though, as he sorts through the inchoate desires that led him to that wild night in L.A. Maybe the happy ending to this story is arrived at a bit too easily, but The D Train gives us a shaded view of gay sex that amounts to something new in movies. That, wrapped up in a funny comedy, is hard to resist.
The D Train
Starring Jack Black and James Marsden. Written and directed by Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul. Rated R.