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D Train, The

D: Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel / 101m

Cast: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Russell Posner, Mike White, Henry Zebrowski, Kyle Bornheimer

Dan Landsman (Black) is the self-styled chairman of his high school reunion committee. He enjoys what limited prestige comes with the position (which isn’t much), but can’t get the respect from his fellow committee members that he thinks he deserves. This is due to his overbearing, self-important approach to organising the reunion, and the fact that he was never popular in high school. As he and the rest of the committee call up their peers and are continually let down, Dan finds a solution in the unlikeliest of places: a Banana Boat commercial. The “star” of the commercial is none other than Oliver Lawless (Marsden), the most popular guy in high school. Dan reasons that if he can get Oliver to attend the reunion, everyone will.

Dan determines that a face-to-face approach is needed, but Oliver lives in L.A., while he lives in Pittsburgh. Under the pretence of going there for an important business meeting, Dan books a flight and gets ready to go. But his boss, Mr Schurmer (Tambor), insists on coming with him to help facilitate the deal that Dan has supposedly set up. Unable to persuade his boss to stay in Pittsburgh, he has no choice but to make it seem as if the deal has fallen through. Dan tracks down Oliver and they spend the night on the town, going from club to club and bar to bar and getting drunk and high. Dan goes back to his hotel room but in the early hours, Oliver, feeling down, pays him a visit. Dan reveals the true reason for his visit, and even tells Oliver about the so-called business deal; Oliver agrees to attend the reunion.

The next morning, Oliver poses as the businessman Dan has been dealing with, but instead of killing the deal as Dan needs him to, he tells Schurmer that it’s a go. Oliver apologises, but tells Dan he can easily put a stop to things when he’s back in Pittsburgh. That night they go out on the town again, but this time they end up back at Oliver’s apartment. To Dan’s surprise, Oliver makes a pass at him. What happens next leaves Dan bewildered and confused. Back home he finds his boss spending lots of money on the business in expectation of the deal going through, his fourteen year old son Zach (Posner) experiencing problems of the heart, and his wife Stacey (Hahn) pleased for him for landing the deal and Oliver’s attendance at the reunion.

But when Oliver arrives for the reunion and stays at Dan’s home, Dan begins behaving erratically, and he starts to alienate his wife and son, and the members of the committee (who don’t like him that much anyway). As the reunion draws nearer, he tries his best to behave normally but the events in L.A. have had a greater impact on him than even he’s aware of. And it’s at the reunion itself that Dan’s behaviour causes the greatest upset as he and Oliver confront each other over what happened, and Dan is left feeling isolated and alone, and wondering what he can do to make things right with the people he cares about.

THE D TRAIN - 2015 FILM STILL - Jack Black (Dan Landsman) and James Marsden (Oliver Lawless) - Photo Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. An IFC Films release.

Having previously worked on the script for Yes Man (2008), writers/directors Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel have upped their game somewhat for The D Train, and the result is a clever, sometimes very funny comedy drama that gives Black his best role since Bernie (2011) (though to be fair he has only made two other movies in that time). It’s also smart, knowing and occasionally tragic in its look at its main character’s constant need for respect and approbation, and the lengths he’ll go to in order to be acknowledged.

The social misfit is perhaps Black’s niche role (it can only be a matter of time before he plays a serial killer), and as in Bernie he’s uncomfortably comfortable in the role of a man whose social standing is based on his lack of popularity in high school (when we see him calling his fellow alumni not one of them appears to remember him without the benefit of some heavy prompting). Away from the reunion committee he’s in a respected position at work, with his boss happy to defer to Dan’s judgement on matters, while his home life appears secure as well. But it’s his lack of social presence that bothers him, and why he’s never fit in. Meeting Oliver in L.A. reminds him he can be a fun guy, that he can be good company, and more importantly, that those traits have always been inside him; it’s just needed someone of Oliver’s carefree nature to bring them out of him.

But with freedom comes (no, not great responsibility) a complete misunderstanding of the nature of friendship and many of the unspoken rules that go with it. Back in Pittsburgh, Dan displays all the signs of someone who’s been abandoned or had their favourite toy taken away from them; he just doesn’t know how to deal with all the raw feelings he’s experiencing. He overcompensates in the bedroom (not that Stacey minds), but then rudely ignores Zach when he needs some fatherly advice. The situation at work becomes unmanageable, and when Oliver shows himself to be a better father figure, Dan over-reacts and tells him to leave. It’s in these moments when Dan’s insecurities and jealousy of Oliver’s “cool” attitude shows him for the desperately needy person that he is.

Black is superb in the role, and he’s matched by Marsden who portrays Oliver’s shallow lifestyle with a thread of sadness lurking beneath the rampant hedonism. Hahn, who goes from strength to strength with each movie she makes, delivers a polished if largely restrained performance that makes for an effective counterpoint to Black’s anguished social walrus. And Tambor is terrific as Dan’s boss, a confirmed Luddite whose puppy-dog adoption of computers and the Internet contributes to Dan’s downfall.

But while the performances are all above average, and while the basic premise is a sound one given enough room for considered examination, the movie does have its faults, and in the same way that Paul and Mogel’s script is on solid ground when dissecting Dan’s motives and behaviour, it’s less so when it introduces moments and scenes of crass humour. One scene in particular stands out, when Oliver gives Zach advice on how to manage in a threesome. Despite the obvious humour to be had from such a scene, it’s still at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie, and there’s nothing the directors can do to offset the awkwardness of having a man in his late Thirties giving sex advice to a fourteen year old (it’s also strange that the script thinks it’s entirely likely that Zach would ask his dad about such a subject while at the dinner table). And at the reunion, Dan snorts cocaine in the bathroom before being discovered by Jerry (White), one of the committee members. Dan rambles on and Jerry’s surprise at Dan’s behaviour evaporates as quickly as it occurs. And Mr Schurmer’s subdued reaction to the potential loss of his company is meant to be quietly tragic but seems instead to be a case of the script not wanting to follow that particular plot thread any further (the same goes for Stacey’s reaction to the revelation of what happened in L.A.).

D Train, The - scene 2

With the characters routinely involved in scenes that don’t always have a logical follow-on, or betray the emotion of a scene (e.g. when Oliver leaves for L.A. and says goodbye to two of the committee members), the movie tries for hard-edged adult humour too often at the expense of the more important dramatic aspects. While the humour is mostly very funny indeed, a lot of it feels shoe-horned in, as if they were added to the script somewhere in the pre-production phase. As a result the movie feels disjointed at times, and lacks the overall focus afforded the drama, leaving audiences to wonder if the humour is there to provide some relief from the themes of social inequality, self respect, alienation, and personal inadequacy. If it is, then unfortunately the way in which it’s been done lacks authority.

Rating: 7/10 – deficiencies in the script leave The D Train feeling like it’s falling short of its original intentions; Black is on terrific form however, keeping the movie afloat through some of its more unlikely moments, and perfectly judging the pathos needed to avoid Dan being completely unlikeable.