We all need goals. Dan Landsman (Jack Black) has one, and its small in scope. He wants to throw the perfect 20-year reunion at his beloved high school. But the lies he tells to make his dream happen – and the consequences he suffers as a result – grow larger and larger… and The D Train becomes funnier and sadder, in ratio, as the story plays out.
More than anything, The D Train marks the triumphant return of Jack Black as a subtle comedian, rinsing away the temporary stain acquired by lazy feature choices like Gulliver’s Travels and Year One in the process. Black has no problem playing the life of the party, or the loud and boisterous center of attention for a showy cameo role. With The D Train, Black’s asked to linger in the uncomfortable skin of neutered, socially inept and painfully clueless outsider, and he wears the part like a specially-tailored three-piece suit.
Dan Landsman stopped evolving, socially, after high school. Stuck in a rut in his sleepy Pittsburgh town, Dan has a supportive wife (Kathryn Hahn), a sweet but needy kid (Russell Posner), and a coveted gig as the (self-appointed) head of the alumni committee at his beloved alma mater. But no one on the committee respects Landsman’s passion for the school’s upcoming 20th anniversary… until Dan hatches a foolproof idea.
While surfing channels late one night, Dan recognizes the handsome lead in a suntan commercial as Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), a former classmate who dared to leave Pennsylvania and chase his acting dreams. Dan’s interest in Oliver is strong – a little too strong, you’ll notice – but he’s merely saying that if he can convince Lawless to attend the school’s reunion, other alumni who have been passing on the event might change their minds. It’s like those celebrity charity functions, Dan explains to the reunion board. Once Dave Schwimmer says he’s in, everyone is in! Dan volunteers to track Oliver down, telling the first of many lies by saying they used to be friends. He finagles a trip to California from his beleaguered boss (Jeffrey Tambor) … using yet another series of lies. And he finally finds Oliver – which is when Dan’s runaway freight train of fibs finally threatens to jump the tracks, completely.
Something happens in The D Train that I want to protect. It’s an important turn, and it completely affects the second half of the movie, but I don’t think it belongs in a review. Sitting on it makes it harder to discuss The D Train openly, however, this is a better movie is you are sucker-punched by the surprise, because then you are wrestling with its implications alongside Dan, Oliver, and the rest of the helpless folks in Dan’s unusual orbit.
So what can I say about The D Train? Well, it’s certainly easy – physically – to pit Jack Black against James Marsden, allowing their differences to cement your point about how the portly, insecure guy has a harder path to success than the classically handsome dude. But co-writers/co-directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul avoid slipping into any lazy analysis of the separation between Dan and Oliver. One took some chances in life, while the other stayed behind, where it was safer. Both mildly succeeded, but feel like they failed. They’re each holding different shit sandwiches, which each taste exactly the same.
Without giving away too much, I can tell you that The D Train hints at the darkness in the corners of its premise – of how dangerous it is to hold on to the past, and to envy the good life you think someone else is leading, at the expense of the good life you’re actually in. And when the time comes, Mogel and Paul gleefully embrace the darkness, then sadistically linger in the repercussions of some difficult actions. And that’s where both Marsden and Black – but mainly the latter – shine. Black reminds us that he’s capable of being totally endearing as a mildly demented “Book of Job” character, paying a price for his perceived victory. On top of that, it’s funny and sad in unexpected ways. Listen for little chips and digs laced through the screenplay, They are trying to break your heart.
The D Train shows us a man who figures out how to climb the mountain that has been placed in his path, though he realizes he hates the view once he reaches the summit. It’s a 101-minute reminder that we should be very careful what we wish for, because we just might get it.