“The D Train” is a head-scratcher of a film, and not in a good way. Written and directed by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel (the duo behind Jonah Hill’s short-lived animated series, “Allen Gregory”), the comedy stars Jack Black as Dan Landsman, a man still yearning for approval from high school classmates. He wasn’t popular when he graduated 20 years ago, and he still isn’t. He’s a social outcast, a guy who never really fit in and longs for adoration and acceptance. Despite this driving desire, Dan has a loving and attractive wife (Stacey, portrayed by Kathryn Hahn), an affectionate 14-year-old son (Russell Posner, “Fading Gigolo”), and an infant daughter. Given all he has at home — which, held up to the light of Dan’s social shortcomings, never achieves believability — you’d expect him to be more than content. Yet, he’s not. He barely acknowledges Stacey, except to ask her to do (non-sexual) favors for him in the middle of the night. His son obviously looks up to him — though it’s unclear why, since Dan hardly pays him any mind. Spitting in the face of all the attention Dan gets at home, all he really wants is to make his 20th high school reunion a success, so that he can please people who don’t care about (or for) him at all.
The solution to Dan’s “problem” comes in the form of Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the former heartthrob everyone in high school would have killed to hang out with. Wasting time in front of the tube while unable to sleep one night, Dan sees a sunscreen commercial starring Lawless and rapidly concocts a plan — if he can get the classmate-turned-Hollywood actor to agree to attend the reunion, then Dan will finally earn the respect and friendships he has craved from his peers for a quarter of a century. The idea, though, is abysmally formed — something Dan readily admits later. Rather than just take a few days off work to head to L.A., Dan lies to his boss, Bill Shurmur (Jeffrey Tambor), about a prospective west coast client. Soon, Shurmur and Dan are on their way across the country for a fabricated business meeting, the success of which will make or break Shurmur’s decades-old company. Naturally, the deception grows exponentially, until Dan is in way over his head.
One of the most surprising things about “The D Train” is that Mogel and Paul almost manage to sell the fact that Dan views securing Lawless’ RSVP as the key to his happiness. Removing considerations of Dan’s family life and his success at work, the writer-directors essentially succeed in convincing the audience that such a person could rest his long-gestating social hopes on a high school reunion. That said, the basic premise remains far-fetched, and the things Dan does in his quest to win Lawless over are neither well earned nor funny. In fact, the film tonally flip-flops repeatedly, going from a (wannabe) comedy to a dark, pathetic story of a man desperate to fit in, to a sad study of depressing and forgotten individuals.
Take, for example, Bill Shurmur. The character is inconceivably averse to technology. In this day and age, it’s impossible that someone running a business would eschew computers and email, and yet, that’s exactly what the filmmakers want us to buy. Shurmur’s reluctance to adopt the internet and his lack of familiarity with such daily tools as Google make it implausibly easy for Dan to lead him on as long as he does, spinning tale after tale of a fictitious west coast business deal, so that he can maintain the charade about Lawless. It’s a gimmick — and a weak one at that — just like so much else in the film. However, it’s less egregious than a homosexual plotline that comes and goes conveniently, awkwardly, and offensively throughout. Without revealing what happens, suffice it to say Paul and Mogel rely on a “gay” story thread for laughs, which they don’t get, and a payoff that doesn’t carry anywhere near the punch it wants to.
It is this plot device that makes one wonder how “The D Train” got made. Perhaps it read funnier on paper than it comes across. On screen, the result is just bizarre, a film that seems hard to believe even as it’s happening. A guy desperate to pull off a successful high school reunion (one that really never seemed to be languishing too badly to begin with) is a stretch as it is. With all that Paul and Mogel add — and surely, there were other ideas, other devices, other plot turns they could have used — “The D Train” crosses the line from out-there to ill-conceived. The only place it truly shines is in making an awkward viewing experience. At times, the film is so (intentionally) cringe-worthy it’ll have people squirming in their seats. But the duo behind it could have achieved this effect in so many different and far more plausible ways. As it is, “The D Train” goes off the rails (weak, unfinished, poorly constructed rails), and wrecks somewhere between mediocre and unfortunately disappointing. [C-]