Have you ever heard the expression, “He/She peaked in high school”? It isn’t meant as a compliment and suggests every aspect of that person’s life since graduation has been less than spectacular. Some people (i.e. me) wish that fate on their fellow students. At one of my reunions the jock that had made my life miserable since fourth grade was sitting alone at the bar. He had gotten fat and while everyone else was dressed for a night on the town he had on cutoff jean shorts, a t-shirt, flip-flops and a ball cap. I secretly smirked at how his life appeared to have gone in the gutter but then realized how petty that was. He and I are now Facebook friends and he appears to have a very nice life. The point of all of this is that we sometimes carry our high school personas through our lives while also applying what we thought of classmates to theirs. It isn’t until we’ve grown up some that we let these trivial resentments fall away and accept classmates for what they are now instead of who they were then. In “The D Train,” one person who is in a near constant state of delusion approaches the king of the class to attend the high school reunion. The affect it has on both their lives is profound.
Dan Landsman (Jack Black) is the self-appointed head of his high school graduating class’ alumni committee. He and a group of fellow alumni are making calls to other classmates as the date of their 20 year reunion approaches. They aren’t having much luck getting commitments and it looks like very few, if any, will attend. Sitting at home watching TV one evening, Dan sees classmate Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) doing a commercial for Banana Boat sunscreen. Oliver was who every guy wanted to hang out with and every girl wanted to sleep with. Dan thinks if he can get Oliver, a big-time actor in Hollywood, to come to the reunion it will encourage others to attend. Telling everyone on the alumni committee he is a good friend of Oliver’s, Dan concocts a plan to head out to L.A. on a bogus business trip to get Oliver to commit to coming to the reunion. He tells his boss Bill Shurmur (Jeffrey Tambor) at the small consulting firm for whom he works that he has been in contact with at possible new client and needs to fly out to L.A. to meet with him. Bill surprises Dan and says he will go as well. Dan does everything to get Bill to stay home but he insists. On the trip, Dan calls Oliver and the two meet up for drinks. Oliver loves to drink and uses cocaine as well. Dan jumps in with both feet to impress Oliver. Dan still has to take care of the fake business meeting Bill expects and Oliver agrees to pose as the prospective client. Oliver tells Bill that while he’s impressed with the company they don’t have the budget to make any deals. Bill agrees to cut their consulting fee by 50 percent and, caught up in the moment and his performance, Oliver agrees. After a second night on the town, Dan convinces Oliver to attend the reunion. The pair, drunk and strung out on cocaine, return to Oliver’s apartment where their friendship takes a significant turn that leaves Dan questioning everything about his life. The trip to L.A. has spun wildly out of control. The only good thing that has happened is Oliver has agreed to come to the reunion. That should go off without a hitch, right?
Don’t go to “The D Train” expecting to see Jack Black be his usual wild and crazy self for the entire film. While he shows some of his wide-eyed enthusiasm and take-no-prisoners humor for part of the film, the trip to L.A. causes a change in his character that can only be described as dark. Black plays a man whose entire world is teetering on a knife’s edge. He’s close to losing his comfortable life with a wife, two kids, a nice house and steady job just to get a classmate that he idolizes to come to the reunion and reap the reward of respect and adulation he expects from his friends at home. “The D Train” is a study of a man melting down due to the heat of his own insecurities. While Black’s performance is riveting, the story that surrounds it is disappointing.
Jack Black is one of those actors I can usually only take in small doses. His manic energy and machine gun delivery tends to wear thin for me fairly quickly; however, Black is both bouncing off the walls and fascinating to watch as Dan scrambles to keep all the flaming batons he’s juggling in the air without getting burned. Dan isn’t a bad guy but he is a bit delusional. In his phone calls to former classmates, Dan has to go to great lengths to remind people who he is and most of them never do remember. Dan wants to be remembered as the life of the party and friends with everyone. Sadly, he was the guy who was always in the back of the yearbook photos for any club or group pictures. Black makes us feel Dan’s desperation and while it is often annoying, we feel for him as he just wants to be liked. That need for approval is at the core of all Dan’s bad decisions and lies. He needlessly involves his boss in his lie and ends up costing the company thousands of dollars when Bill decides to expand when Oliver agrees to the deal. Black is firing on all cylinders in “The D Train.” Later in the film, his jealousy of Oliver leads to all his dirty secrets coming out in front of everyone at the reunion. It is a painful scene to watch and will make you cringe in your seat. Watching as Dan is eviscerated in front of all the people he so desperately wants to impress is heartbreaking as you watch his ego and self-worth drain away with every word. If this was a better film and came out later in the year, Jack Black might have gotten nominated for some awards.
James Marsden, Jeffrey Tambor and Kathryn Hahn as Dan’s wife Stacey are all very good. Tambor plays Bill as a befuddled businessman who is stuck in the 1980’s. He doesn’t trust technology so he has very little in his office. Bill isn’t an annoying technophobe, he just likes things simple. Dan thinks this gets in the way of the business and eventually leads to some of the fallout over his lies. Kathryn Hahn is the much put upon wife of Dan. Several times in the film, Dan wakes her up out of a sound sleep and this annoys her greatly. Hahn isn’t given the chance to be funny like many of her movie roles have been; however, she is given opportunities to do some serious acting and she handles it very well. James Marsden plays a convincing burnt out actor. Marsden’s eyes always appear kind of sleepy and his constantly tousled hair gives Oliver the look of someone who has given up trying to look perfect. Oliver is just looking for the next good time because the next job is way down the road. Dan thinks he’s living the dream but, without telling us with words, Oliver makes it clear he’s it’s not nearly as idyllic as Dan thinks. Much of Marsden’s performance drips with a false bravado that barely hides his desperation. It’s only late in the film that Oliver admits to Dan what the audience has known the whole time. That’s part of what brings the film down in my opinion.
My biggest issue with the film is how the story chickens out with a hopeful ending. After all Dan’s shenanigans the movie ends with the implication that everything is forgiven. Considering all the lies he’s told his wife, his boss, his friends and himself, it seems unlikely Dan would escape largely unscathed. While the film is fairly confident in itself most of the time, it takes the easy way out in its conclusion. Maybe someone with the studio or one of the financiers wanted there to be some hope at the end of “The D Train” so the co-writers/co-directors Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel gave Dan a neat and tidy ending. Considering what comes before, the ending feels dishonest and like the filmmakers don’t trust the audience with the consequences Dan’s choices would likely bring.
“The D Train” is rated R for strong sexual material, drug use, nudity and language. There are discussions of sex that are sometimes rather crude. There are two sex scenes: One is merely glimpsed in flashbacks while another comes off as mostly comical. Both prescription and illegal drugs are shown being used to enhance the characters night on the town. We briefly see a couple of naked male backsides as well as topless women at a strip bar. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.
As the film ended, I found myself feeling conflicted about the movie. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or if I hated it. The movie is certainly unlike many summer films and is aimed squarely at adults. The tone feels a bit flat and the ending is too kind to Dan. I wish those who made the film had been willing to give the audience an honest ending; however, the performances make “The D Train” worth seeing although you may feel conflicted as well about how the film affects you.
“The D Train” gets a C…or three stars out of five.
Three new films open this week and I’ll probably see “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Then again, who knows?
Mad Max: Fury Road—
Pitch Perfect 2—
Where Hope Grows—
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