The D Train won't take you from The Bronx to Coney Island, but it will take you back to high school. The movie wants us to believe we never really left — that life itself is a mega-version of grades nine through twelve. The beautiful people are all out in Hollywood becoming famous, and the rest of us, well, we're not as cool.
There's more to The D Train than that, however. The dark comedy begins as a promising character study of an uptight ball of annoying energy named Dan Landsman, played to dorky perfection by Jack Black. Dan is a family man. His wife (Kathryn Hahn, in a rare straight-woman performance) is kind and busy taking care of the couple's two kids, which leaves Dan to concentrate fully on something incredibly important: his high school reunion.
Dan is part of a committee that meets regularly to ready the big event. All the other members hate him for his ill-advised plans to recruit classmates, but he's got a surefire new one. After spotting the most popular dude from school, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), in a Banana Boat commercial, Dan vows to get him to attend. He imagines if he gets Lawless, other classmates will follow and he'll be the hero. A great dream sequence follows Dan and Oliver arriving to the reunion in slow-motion like conquering heroes.
The set-up is funny and executed well by first-time directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul (who wrote Yes Man). They obviously want to make their own disturbed comedy, like the Coen brothers or Alexander Payne before them. They're smart to trust in Black, who commits full force to Dan's lunacy. And his performance is reminiscent of other obnoxious, obsessive liars like Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick in Election. But this movie, while uncomfortably weird and tonally all over the place, isn't well-written enough to be memorable.
Dan lies to his conveniently computer-illiterate boss, Bill (Jeffrey Tambor), telling him there's a new client in L.A. that wants a face to face. But Bill wants to tag along so Dan has to start keeping track of his lies, which plays into the film's weak conclusion. He connects with Oliver easily on the west coast. The cool kid from high school is now a struggling single actor and he shrugs off his meeting with Dan as something to do. Soon, they're drinking hard and living it up. Oliver seems to buy Dan's very forced "cool guy" act complete with lame-brained sayings like "What up playa?" And something else happens: Dan comes alive.
You can probably see where this is going, or then again, maybe you can't. Dan's bro crush and Oliver's "why not" attitude towards sex (which Marsden reveals with a yawn) land the two in bed together at the end of the night. The scene, with Black's face in close-up and Oliver whaling away in the background, isn't treated with a delicate composition and Greensleeves. It's dirty, clumsy, and altogether awkward — a harbinger of things to come.
The D Train, a title taken from one of Dan's many nicknames for himself that never catch on, does tap into male friendship and mid-life boredom. The idea that certain people are cool because they're good-looking certainly isn't new. But there aren't many films that show how that dynamic affects males. The dorky guys at school want to be friends with the cool kids just as much as the girls do (Heathers, Mean Girls), but they play it off much more. That's true, and probably rooted in homophobia, but the idea that husbands get bored with their families eventually (and may be secretly gay besides) is a tired theme. Remember American Beauty? That was 16 years ago.
Despite these script crutches, and the way the movie resolves itself — with the easiest ending imaginable — The D Train is strangely compelling. Black is slowly building a catalogue of weirdo characters you can't take your eyes off, even if you hate them. Films like this one, Margot at the Wedding, Be Kind Rewind, and Bernie suit the rotund thespian perfectly. Black has become a polarizing character actor; you either hate him or love him. In The D Train, all he wants is to be loved, but not by you.