Dan Landsman is a loser among losers, a pariah even among the fellow geeks with whom he’s planning his 20th high school reunion. When, after a meeting, he asks if anyone wants to get a drink, they all demur—and then go out to a bar without him. (In case viewers miss the significance of the snub, we’re informed that they’ve done exactly this before.)
So Dan (Jack Black) hatches a plan. After spotting a popular former classmate, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), in a Banana Boat sunscreen commercial, he concludes that if he can persuade Oliver to attend the reunion, it will make everyone in the class want to attend, and thus render Dan a hero. The fact that this feeble premise does, in fact, come to fruition is among the smaller failures of The D Train, a thin and painfully unfunny “dark” comedy by writer-directors Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogul.
I use quote marks because although The D Train clearly imagines itself to be a daring excavation of a soul in turmoil, it is in fact an utterly formulaic comedy save for the extreme unlikability of its protagonist and a theoretically edgy central twist that the film has absolutely no idea what to do with.
As portrayed by Black, Dan is a bottomless well of self-pity and self-absorption. Closed off as a husband (Kathryn Hahn has the thankless task of playing his wife) and negligent as a father, he does little more than fester in his insecurities. That is, until he sees the Banana Boat ad and hatches his far-fetched plan. Lying to both his wife and his boss at a small Pittsburgh consulting firm (Jeffrey Tambor, another performer too good for his material), he feigns a “work” trip to L.A. Once there, Dan tracks down Oliver, who improbably agrees to a night on the town. Following a frenzy of booze- and drug-fueled bar-hopping, Oliver and Dan.… Well, let’s just say that they find themselves in a situation Dan never anticipated. Surprising? Yes. Daring? Not nearly so much as the filmmakers seem to believe.
A moderately traumatized Dan returns to Pittsburgh a hero—Oliver has agreed to come to the reunion!—but, given his experience in L.A., a conflicted one. More festering ensues: Does Dan want Oliver close to him? Yes! He’s the golden child in whose reflected popularity Dan can bask. Does he want him far away? Also, yes! Their history is too awkward. So Dan behaves more and more unpleasantly toward everyone else in the film until the big climax at the reunion, in which he is utterly humiliated in front of his wife and classmates. But never fear: A redemptive, uplifting conclusion of Oprah-esque proportions is a mere ten minutes away.
The D Train fundamentally fails as black comedy because, apart from its central, moderately homophobic twist, it has nothing to offer except for a stereotypical bromedy plot (the nerd and the Hollywood star!) and a series of tedious homilies. (Be yourself! Popularity isn’t everything!) Unlike, say, The King of Comedy—another film about an intolerably narcissistic loser—it has no larger social context or commentary. Its out-of-left-field twist remains just that; the movie makes no effort to mine it for any deeper meaning than a kind of low-grade gay panic. The D Train isn’t smart enough to be dark; it’s merely disagreeable.
But the film fails in the opposite direction as well: caricature this broad should be, you know, funny, but there are far more cringes than laughs as the movie progresses. Marsden has his moments as Oliver: This is not the first time it’s been apparent that he’s a gifted comic actor trapped in the body of a romantic lead. But ultimately his polysexual gadabout is written as thinly as Dan’s character. (Yes, for all his looks and “fame,” at heart he too considers himself a loser: a Z-list commercial actor barely getting by in a city of genuine stars.) Up until its fulsome conclusion—which is punctuated, of course, with an anatomical joke—The D Train is as morose and ill-tempered as its protagonist. But in the movie’s case, the self-loathing is well-earned.