At first glance, The D Train looks for all the world like just another R-rated comedy with an over-the-top Jack Black. That’s certainly what I was expecting — and it is not in the least what this is. A shock? Well, let’s say all the signs were against it. I mean I can only think of a few instances where I’ve actually liked Jack Black — and fewer still where I’ve found co-star James Marsden in any way memorable (except Hop, and the less said about that the better). The writer-director team of Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel was unknown to me, so they were a crap shoot, and the odds weren’t in my favor. But the cinema gods were looking favorably on me with this one, which turned out to be more than a pleasant surprise. It turned out to be a surprisingly bold movie.
Jack Black plays Dan Landsman, a well-meaning but socially inept fellow who never got over not being popular in high school, despite his efforts to paint a rosier picture of those years than reality attests to. In fact, not much has changed for Dan. He has a supportive wife, Stacey (Kathryn Hahn), a son, Zach (Russell Posner, Fading Gigolo) and an infant daughter. He has an OK but boring job and a nice middle-class home. But he apparently has no friends and wants nothing more than to gain the respect of the people he went to school with — 20 years ago. To this end, he’s working on the class reunion committee — the self-proclaimed chairman, in fact — and it’s not going well. The rest of the committee barely tolerates him, and no one he calls to urge to come to the reunion responds positively. His position with the rest of the class is probably summed up when he has to tell one prospect, “No, I don’t think I still suck.”
Salvation may be at hand, however, when Dan spots the most popular guy in his class, Oliver Lawless (Marsden), in a commercial for Banana Boat suntan products. Dan’s idea is that if he can get Oliver — who he claims was a close friend (no one else remembers it that way) — to come to the reunion not only will “everybody” come, but he’ll be the class hero for getting this Hollywood “star.” Hatching a way-too-convoluted plan — one that involves lying to just about everyone — Dan sets out for Hollywood to snare his quarry. Not surprisingly — after all, a suntan ad isn’t exactly stardom — he does just that in more ways than he ever intended. And this is where the movie gets bold, because it takes the idea of the “bromance” to the conclusion movies like this don’t tend to even broach, let alone follow through with.
More surprising still, The D Train never tries to back away from this. Rather, it becomes central to the story — and in an emotional, not exploitative way. It isn’t the line-crossing itself that informs the film’s terrific third act, it’s the fallout from it. This, of course, is why The D Train is an indie being distributed by IFC Films. It’s also the sort of thing that’s probably not going to play well with some viewers. (It’s already made some critics — who’ve branded the film “far-fetched” — nervous.) The unfortunate thing here is that the very aspect of the film that’s going to alienate some of the audience is what raises it out of the ordinary R-rated class reunion comedy. It’s not that it gives the film an edge — though it does — but that the way it’s handled gives the proceedings surprising depth, especially at the end. The scene at the reunion party, Marsden’s last remark to two other classmates and his final scene with Black are among the most effective things I’ve seen all year. These things raise the film way beyond its initial premise — and raise the other scenes with them. See this film. It’s so much more than you probably think. Rated R for strong sexual material, nudity, language and drug use.