Silver Screen: The D Train **1/2
A great, distinctive performance can linger with an actor, and eventually bleed into other movies. Dustin Hoffman stammered through several roles post-Rain Man. Al Pacino took years to ditch the bombastic persona he affected for Scent of a Woman. It’s happened to Johnny Depp twice; he suffered a low, muttering hangover from Hunter S. Thompson’s unmistakable speech patterns, which then found their way into the Jack Sparrow character he couldn’t quite shake in between Pirates installments.
Former Tenacious D frontman and two-time Kung Fu Panda Jack Black reined in his metal-head energy and disappeared almost completely into the role of the mysterious, effeminate Bernie Tiede, the antihero of Richard Linklater’s wonderful, wildly underrated 2011 Bernie. Echoes of Bernie’s careful, hip-swinging walk, accentuated by high-waisted pants, and his pitched, lilting voice find their way into Black’s latest performance in The D Train.
Unlike the homespun murderer Bernie Tiebe, who was beloved by the folks in his tiny Texas community, The D Train’s Dan Landsman isn’t feeling the small-town love. His supportive wife (Kathryn Hahn) humors his mild eccentricities, his teenaged son (Russell Posner) looks up to him, and his old-fashioned boss (Jeffrey Tambor) is grooming him as a successor. Yet the incontrovertibly uncool Dan is still desperate for some version of boozy camaraderie he feels like he missed out on in high school.
While serving on the committee to organize his twentieth high-school reunion, Dan spies a chance to regain the glory he’d always wished he had to lose. Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the coolest guy in his class, lives in L.A., where he recently starred in a sunscreen commercial. Dan will fly to California, convince the pseudo-celebrity he barely knew to attend the reunion, and be the hero who saved the party... or at least the guy who brought the hero.
Dan does fly to L.A. to meet Oliver, but to keep his plan secret from both his wife and his boss, he concocts a fake business meeting. Dan’s lies quickly spin out of control, alienating his wife and imperiling his struggling company. All this for a meeting with Oliver, which takes a surprising left turn.
The D Train is structured around a twist— how shocking you find it will depend on your personal politics. It’s a surprise, though, no doubt, and one that injects the movie with fresh energy just as Dan’s desperation and the crumbling façade of lies threaten to sour the comedy.
Credit cowriters and directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul for building a movie around a thorny premise while simultaneously not overplaying it. The D Train only gets more interesting as it delves into Dan’s deepening identity crisis and his improbable friendship with Oliver.
Both leads are terrific. Black does most of the heavy lifting, but Marsden gives an even subtler, more effortless-looking performance— the best of his career— as a popular, good-looking guy who realizes his lifelong lucky streak has come to an end. Marsden has been a little stiff onscreen prior, but he brought an infectious enthusiasm to his scenes as Tina Fey’s boyfriend in Thirty Rock, and here he suggests an inner darkness he’s never quite conjured before. Comedy seems to suit him, improbably, as well as drama suits Jack Black.
Yet The D Train is easier to admire than to enjoy. It’s consistently compelling, but only the thickest-skinned fans of cringe humor will find the laughs where they are presumably supposed to be. It’s not that the central conceit induces so much teeth-gnashing and sidelong looks away from the screen, but rather the endless awkwardness of the subplots, ranging from Dan’s continued betrayal of his kindhearted boss or his son’s uncomfortable (and unlikely) conundrum involving a teenage ménage à trois. It all threatens to become one long cringe, and the movie ends not with the triumphant bursting of tension, but a grateful sigh of relief.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.