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The D Train

by Kilian Melloy
Friday May 8, 2015
A scene from 'The D Train'
A scene from 'The D Train'  (Source:Ealing Studios)

There is a temptation to like a movie that contains the line -- delivered by a 15-year-old girl, who is addressing a man pushing 40 -- "Dude, you're fucked up. I like it." But temptation only gets you so far. Then regret sets in.

The man in question is played by Jack Black, who has had a patchy career as both a comic and dramatic actor. Notable successes include Richard Linklater's 2003 gem "School of Rock"; notable failures include the Barry Levinson film "Envy," released just one year after Linklater's triumph. It's not fair to Black, but the notion rises unbidden from the back of the critical mind: How could this guy have ruined a film from the director of the much-vaunted "Diner?"

Black starred in "School of Rock" with White... Mike White, that is, who appears with Black (albeit in little more than a cameo role) in this new film, "The D Train," which was written and directed jointly by Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul. Black's main costar in this mostly-unfunny venture is James Marsden (Cyclops from the "X-Men" movies), and Kathryn Hahn and Jeffrey Tambor show up as the wife and boss, respectively, of Black's schmo, Dan Landsman, a rotund and ineffectual man straining hard for respect, or even credibility.

Dan has a 14-year-old son (Russell Posner) and an infant daughter, but it's his own youth he can't quite let go of. He chairs (in his own mind, at least) the local high school's alumni association, and he's determined to make the twentieth anniversary of his class' graduation an event to remember. He succeeds all too well, in no small measure thanks to the half-wit plan he's cooked up of inviting the one and only semi-famous member of their class to attend the reunion.

Enter Marsden's character, a strung-out and struggling actor with the stage-ready name Oliver Lawless. Dan spots Lawless in a TV commercial for sunblock, and leaps to the conclusion that Lawless was now a big-time movie actor; Lawless, who looks and dresses the part of the jaded celebrity, is flattered at Dan's worshipful attentions, which Dan lavishes on him in person after cooking up a fake business opportunity to get his boss to approve a trip out to L.A. Each man reacquaints himself with the other under false pretenses; this is a movie that has at its crux a moral about living a life of illusions that are unsteadily strapped over the top of raging insecurities.

Once Dan coaxes Lawless to the reunion, he's the hero he imagined himself being; even his cohorts on the alumni association, who generally treat him like a nebbish, warm up to him. But Dan himself starts having doubts and regrets, both about deceiving his boss and about the two nights of drunken, drug-fueled revelry he got up to with Lawless in L.A. Once Lawless hits the ol' hometown -- which is Pittsburgh, by the way -- Dan's roiling, mixed emotions boil over. (It doesn't help that Dan's 14-year-old son Zachary is planning a ménage a trois for his initiation into sexual activity, and goes to Lawless for advice. Note to filmmakers: Inappropriate.)

There's a lot of skeevy, uncomfortable humor in this movie, which seems to be the point: High school was a wasteland of torment, confusion, and hormones, and why, exactly, should adulthood be any different? Is anyone deluded enough to actually think that adulthood is any different?

The film is largely without charm, and it's brim-full of "Oh No They Didn't!" That said, it does offer a scattering of incisive ideas, such as the one-way street sign over which someone has scribbled the mocking, but also yearning, phrase "One Day." The sign is pointing, tellingly, in the opposite direction Dan is headed when we first see it -- in a scene where he spots his alumni association colleagues heading into a bar in a tight, laughing pack, after telling him they were tired and heading home for the night. This barbed visual gag rings later on in sympathetic vibration to Lawless' belated confession that he's not the big-shot Dan has taken him for; "I peaked in the eleventh grade," he says, something the audience didn't need 90 minutes to pick up on, but which Dan has been too bedazzled, and besotted, to see.

Then again, the film is full of acts of stupidity, blindness, and desperation that try the patience. This cavalcade of idiocy never rings true -- Dan may be a schmuck, but he's not clueless. That, oddly enough, gives the film its thin measure of poignancy: We all do senseless things, for reasons we may not really understand. The function of fiction, however, is to help clarify why a character does what he does, and this film never gets us there. We get a movie built from scraps of crude humor centered around an unlikely bromance -- nothing new about that -- and we sense the wish is there to say something more. Frustratingly, if it has more to say, "The D Train" never spits it out, clinging to a barrage of humiliations great and small. In the end you won't even care where the title comes from -- it's the result of a tiresome running gag -- because you'll feel like a runaway locomotive knocked you down.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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