In “The D Train,” filmmakers/writers Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel explore what it would be like to go back on decisions made during one’s teen years, and how far one should go to rewrite their high school history.
Dan Landsman (Jack Black) is a lonely and unsatisfied family man who never made it out of his hometown; in fact, he never really grew up at all. The chairman of his high school alumni association, his disastrous efforts to rally RVSPs for their 20th year reunion aren’t winning him any popularity points with the rest of the committee. When he spots Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) — the most revered guy in their graduating class — on a television commercial, Dan decides to hightail it to Los Angeles, track him down, and convince him to attend, hoping it will be the ticket to finally realizing his adolescent dream of getting noticed by the cool kid.
In their directorial debut, veteran screenwriting duo Paul and Mogel explores both sides of the popularity spectrum, from the coveted cliques to the geek squad, suggesting that regardless of which social circle you belonged to once upon a time, it doesn’t have to follow you into adulthood.
In many ways, “The D Train” is Dan’s much-delayed coming-of-age journey, as he relentlessly chases the big man on campus he remembers Oliver to have been, rather than acknowledging who he has now become. Hell-bent on being perceived as desirable by association, Dan continues to view his idol through rose-tinted lenses, going to ludicrous lengths for Oliver’s attention before being forced by Oliver himself to recognize the limitations of basing one’s self-worth on the judgment of others.
Simply put, “The D Train” is a lesson in self-acceptance, posing the question of whether lying your way to external validation is worth it, or whether you’re better off living your own truth — whoever you happen to be. It’s a theme we’ve seen time and again, but the screenplay for “The D Train,” which is rooted in humor (and an unexpected twist early in the story that sets the stage for Dan’s unhinging) lends itself to an entertaining take on a worthy, if not entirely original, message.
Black is in his element here as a paunchy, awkward man-child. Though his aggravating tendency to overact is present in full-force, it caters well to Dan’s over-the-top bids for approval (in a miscalculated attempt to present himself to Oliver as “hip,” for instance, Dan constantly infuses his language with forced, clumsy street slang). While irritating, it’s almost necessary for Black to push Dan to the brink of caricature in order to relay his complete disintegration, and he does so while managing to impart a deeper sadness to the character that prevents him from becoming entirely insufferable.
But for all of Black’s hamming, there’s plenty of relief to be found in a stellar supporting cast that includes Kathryn Hahn as Dan’s wife (and often the victim of his neuroses), as well as Russell Posner as Zach, Dan’s teenage son, who’s dealing with his adolescent issues with much more maturity than his father. Ironically, it’s Marsden as Oliver who stands out most as Dan’s mellower counterpart, battling his own insecurities but with enough self-awareness not to let them define him. There’s an effortless cool about Marsden’s performance that’s a perfect mismatch to Black’s hysterics, and it brings a reassuring authenticity to some otherwise implausible plot twists.
Peppered with unrealistic moments — especially towards the film’s conclusion — that derail the story and take it into parodic territory, the film often gets as exhausting as Dan’s unrelenting desire to fit in. At the same time, the payoff is surprisingly emotional. As Dan’s turbulent pursuit of self-esteem plays out, “The D Train” may encourage you to look back on your own high school self with nostalgia, along with simultaneous gratitude that you never have to be that person again.
“The D Train” premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. It was recently purchased for theatrical distribution by IFC Films.