The D Train is a comedy that stirs almost nothing but unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings. Almost every laugh comes with a cringe of embarrassment for the lead character, who seems to have lived 40 years knowing nothing about himself. The filmmakers persuade us to care about this guy and then proceed to make our skin crawl — and, just to be clear, that's actually a good thing.
To watch The D Train is to imagine that co-writer-directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul must enjoy standing at the back of the auditorium watching their movie, waiting for the audience to catch on that it isn't the usual buddy comedy. In particular, there is a moment about 20 minutes in, when the movie's subversive spirit is suddenly revealed. In a full house, half the audience will be shrieking and the other laughing, both in surprise.
Until then, one might easily wonder why Jack Black chose to make what, at first, seems like a routine little comedy. Dan (Black) is a small-town guy, the head of the committee organizing his high school's 20th reunion. When he sees his old classmate, Oliver (James Marsden), on a commercial for sunblock, he seizes on the idea to travel to Los Angeles and convince Oliver to attend the reunion. From there, you could almost guess the rest — you know, something gently funny and innocuous about two guys learning from each other and making terms with the past. Except you'd be guessing wrong.
In fact, Dan is on a par with the role Black played in Richard Linklater's Bernie. He's sunny, he's upbeat, but there's something wrong with him. In the case of Dan, he has a tortured relationship with reality, so wrapped up in how he's trying to present himself that he can't see what's around him. He makes up nicknames for himself that no one else adopts — "D Train" is one of them. He lies to his wife and boss, and ignores his kid, and tries to cover over his anxiety with high-spirited banter that fools no one except himself. He's like a man on the run from self-awareness.
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This makes Oliver a dangerous person for him to meet — someone impulsive, confident and amoral, with a powerful charm and just enough self-loathing to make him not care about anything. Marsden, with his winning smile and cold eyes, is ideally cast as someone who can size up other people's need for approval and work that to his advantage, or perhaps just exploit that for his amusement.
But the main reward of The D Train is in watching Black, as he makes sense of Dan's strange behavior by subtly giving us glimpses of the character's internal life. It should be obvious by now that Black is much more than a funny fellow. This is a good actor with a particular strength at playing protected, disturbed personalities — secretly angry people trying with all their might to be something they're not.
If there's a weakness to The D Train it's only in the filmmakers' ultimate choice to stop the pain right before the finish, as if any good might really come to the characters they've created. Perhaps the assumption was that, by then, audiences will have suffered enough. But some misery you really can't get enough of, especially when it's happening to other people.