It’s been 15 years since Mike White wrote and starred in “Chuck and
Buck.” Anyone still recovering from that extraordinary but painful experience,
should be prepared for the smart but uncomfortable ride that is “The D Train.”
White executive produced and has a supporting role in this sour comedy about
Dan Landsman (Jack Black), an uptight guy from Pittsburgh with a wife, Stacey
(Kathryn Hahn), and two kids: Zach (Russell Posner), a teenager, and a baby
Dan works for Bill Shurmur (Jeffrey
Tambor), a man who does things the old-fashioned way; he does not have a
computer. This frustrates Dan whose only outlet from work and home is his role
as chairman of the High School Reunion committee. He takes his responsibilities
so seriously he does not share the group’s Facebook password, for fear the page
will be abused.
While the other committee members treat
Dan with disrespect and contempt, his wife is empathetic. She seems comfortable
in her life, such as it is. But Dan wants something more—he just doesn’t know
what. Then, one night, flipping channels, he does: Dan sees his classmate,
Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), in a national advertisement, and becomes
obsessed. Dan believes that if he can get the successful Oliver to attend the
reunion, he will be vindicated and validated and by extension, find meaning and
success in his own life.
Faking a business trip to Los Angeles to convince Oliver to attend
the reunion, Dan lies to his wife, and his boss (Bill tags along to LA,
unexpectedly) and tries to connect with Oliver. And connect he does in a series
of drug, alcohol, and sex-filled nights that—ahem, climax—with Oliver ripping
the buttons off Dan’s shirt, and the two men waking up in bed together the next
morning wearing only their underwear.
And that’s when “The D Train” gets
complicated. The film, written and directed by Aaron Mogul and Jarrad Paul,
wants to have it both ways. Whereas Dan feels a sense of shame and gay panic
having been fucked by Oliver, the experience also empowers him to an extent in
his work and home life. Ultimately, the “bromance”-with-benefits magnifies what
is missing in both men’s lives.
“The D Train” captures the
discomfiting relationship between the needy worshipping Dan, who mistakes a
casual friendship/fling for real affection and the Oliver who needs his ego
stroked like his penis, and provides Dan with the promise of coolness by
The film mines its comedy in the way Dan’s behavior changes after
that epic one-night-stand. He acts like a teenager with a crush, incapable of
paying attention to his boss, his wife, or his son. The changes Dan makes in
his life, from smoking to changing to Oliver’s brand of underwear, or talking to
his bro, reflect his effort to try to be a different person. However, Dan does
not understand what exactly is different about himself, other than that he had
a life-altering experience.
Black dives into the role with the
same gusto he used to bring “Bernie” to
life. He behaves foolishly, but it is always within character. Perhaps the
film’s most heartbreaking moment has him getting everything he wants (but
didn’t think he could have) at home, at work, and at the reunion. Looking at
himself smiling in the mirror, he looks again and appears crestfallen. The lies
Dan tells eat away at him slowly until Oliver arrives in Pittsburgh, and then
they start taking huge bites.
Marsden plays his key role with an
aloof quality, as if he is always aware of what is going on, but pretends not
to notice. He scores laughs in a scene where he counsels/encourages Zach to
have a threesome with his new girlfriend, and he is superb in a climactic
speech he gives at the big reunion. Marsden is so good embodying his character
that the film’s most frustrating element is how blind Dan is about Oliver. It
makes sense that the hero worship bonds Dan to Oliver, but Oliver’s motivations
for wanting to be with Dan are a bit underdeveloped. The film could have been
more complex in this regard.
But this is a minor quibble for a
film that is so very precise in capturing the awkward dynamic and lasting
effect two men can have on each other, especially when one feels something like
love. “The D Train” is a cringe-inducing comedy.