“Like lawn chairs”
Calling The D Train a comedy is probably the most accurate description to bestow upon it, but the label doesn’t quite do it justice. I’m still wrestling about whether that’s because it’s more than a simple comedy or because it utilizes the genre so it can get away with a strain of insensitive humor. Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel‘s sophomore feature script (they wrote Yes Man) ultimately feels alternatingly exploitative and heartfelt. Each time they take a pitch-black turn to some heavy corners that force Dan Landsman (Jack Black) to confront his insecurities, I found myself riveted to see what would happen next. But instead of truly taking that challenge, to witness his inevitable self-implosion and subsequent rise out of that breaking point, easy jokes arrive to unfortunately belittle the otherwise authentic emotional drama.
Dan is not a happy guy. Yes he’s married to a loving wife (Kathryn Hahn‘s Stacey), has a teenage son (Russell Posner‘s Zach), and a toddler. Yes he has a good job working for a man he idolizes (Jeffrey Tambor‘s Bill Shurmur). But he’s miserable nonetheless because he still sees himself as the loser everyone saw him as in school twenty years previously. We’re not talking two-decade-old memories either—they still think so too. He has an abrasively assertive personality mired by a lack of self-worth for an unhealthy combination of awkwardness no one wants to deal with for even one second longer than necessary. So the co-members of the alumni committee who constantly remind him he’s not the “Chairman” because there isn’t one feign playing nice until ditching him at the end of the night.
It’s no wonder he makes it his goal to recruit Mr. Popular from back in the day (James Marsden‘s Oliver Lawless) in order to “save” their reunion. If the face of Banana Boat sunscreen is willing to fly back to Pittsburgh from sunny Los Angeles and make an appearance, everyone will attend to experience that celebrity glow—no matter how faint the aura. So caught up in the prospect and the lie, however, Dan ends up wrapping boss and family into his game of subterfuge to the point where everything he’s built teeters on the edge of destruction. He only sees the potential of being a hero to a room of middle-aged nobodies that refused to give him respect as kids. The fact he already was one to his son never crossed his mind.
There’s a tragic beauty to this that’s profoundly relatable when removed from its hedonistic comedy of errors brought to fruition as a blatant plot device rather than natural progression. We too feel a desire to be loved by those who do not love us. We want to be lifted onto the shoulders of our peers with unbridled enthusiasm for saving the day—to see the look we see from our spouses and children on the faces of others. It’s a lie to say otherwise, but the majority of us never get to achieve success because our comfort level to do so is too low. Because Dan is so lost in the doldrums of a suburban existence that never moved farther than a few miles from his birthplace, however, he finds he’ll do anything for a taste.
You can guess the price for Oliver’s friendship will be steep and Hollywood proclivities make it so. Drugs, money, and sex all serve their roles in getting these two men together for Dan’s dream of a perfect reunion to come true. But this night of debauchery takes a hard left turn so Paul and Mogel can ensure their path for Dan hits absolute rock bottom. Sadly this is the only reason I see for them going in the direction they do—one able to work successfully if it wasn’t so cheaply used for easy laughs while crafting its personal anguish and guilt. They started going about it correctly by showing glimpses of Oliver’s own depressive state to mirror Dan’s, but that gets thrown out the window once the comedy calls for Mr. Cool to simply be cool.
The entire dynamic of these two men using each other to feel like Gods turns into trite genre convention as a result. Dan gets in way over his head and finds himself self-sabotaging every facet of his life because he’s completely unsure about how he feels and what he wants. He begins ignoring Bill at work and Zach at home because he cannot stop thinking about what he must do to keep Oliver as his friend and therefore himself in a position to be loved. It’s a wonderfully complex position that Black handles nicely by turning his trademarked excitement and wacky voices into a forced smokescreen masking internal turmoil. Rather than allow Oliver the same complicated transformation, he merely becomes a figure for Dan to resent by hanging with his nemeses and giving irresponsible advice to his son.
Marsden does eventually get the opportunity to confront his own lies, but it’s to provide Dan with a reason to wake up. His Oliver is a pawn despite the potential for being as important as Black. The aforementioned insensitivity comes in with the reason why Dan and Oliver’s relationship gets strained. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but I will say it results in the filmmakers playing fast and loose with a subject deserving more care than given. They refuse to bend to taboo, but the execution of doing so is half-baked and more interested in its punchline than the psychological toll of its circumstances. Too serious a topic for me to be tickled by laughter, The D Train is also too playful for me to truly accept its drama as worthy of its intent.
 James Marsden (Oliver Lawless) and Jack Black (Dan Landsman) in Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel’s THE D TRAIN. Courtesy of Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. An IFC Films release.
 Jack Black (Dan Landsman) and Kathryn Hahn (Stacey Landsman) in Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel’s THE D TRAIN. Courtesy of Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. An IFC Films release.
 Jeffrey Tambor (Bill Shurmur) and Jack Black (Dan Landsman) in Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel’s THE D TRAIN. Courtesy of Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. An IFC Films release.