Funny and sad isn’t the easiest combination to pull off, and while both descriptors fit “The D Train” well enough, this dark comedy might just as well be described as edgy and soft, audacious and coy, a largely enjoyable letdown. Starring Jack Black as a chronic loser who decides to save his high-school reunion by securing the attendance of the class celebrity (a terrific James Marsden), Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel’s directing debut puts an impressively daring spin on the modern bromance, finding a unique and undeniably funny point of entry into familiar squirm-inducing realms of male bonding, competitiveness and insecurity. Yet while the startling central twist stands to generate considerable pre-release curiosity for this decently commercial entry, it also allows the slick but shaky effort to peak too soon.
Paul and Mogel, who also share credit for the screenplay, lay the groundwork with expert slyness. Their sad-sack antihero is Dan Landsman (Black), a self-deluded, overly talkative and controlling personality who has appointed himself chairman of his Pittsburgh high-school reunion committee, even though his fellow alums can’t stand him and he’s never had any real friends. He does have a loving wife, Stacey (Kathryn Hahn), and a sweet, sensitive teenage son, Zach (Russell Posner). He also has a stable job at a small consulting firm run by his resolutely old-fashioned boss, Bill (the excellent Jeffrey Tambor), whose aversion to smartphones and computers serves as both a key plot point and a surprisingly durable running gag.
When Dan happens to recognize the dreamy lifeguard in a Banana Boat sunscreen commercial as none other than his old classmate Oliver Lawless (Marsden), he sees an opportunity to boost the reunion’s flagging attendance numbers and prove himself the hero of the committee. He cooks up an outlandish plot to renew nonexistent old ties with Oliver, now a Hollywood-based actor, and persuade him to attend the reunion — a ruse that will require him to fabricate a “business trip” to Los Angeles in order to fool both his boss and his wife. Against all odds, Dan’s enthusiasm and persistence pay off, and soon the portly nobody finds himself happily tagging along with the hunky celebrity, who’s self-absorbed in an unsurprising but not unlikable way.
Spoiler alert: Those who wish to preserve the purity of the viewing experience should read no further. For everyone else, there’s little point in writing circles around the soon-to-be-heavily-discussed fact that the story turns on a jaw-dropping, lip-locking seduction scene: Oliver, who’s already casually announced that he’s bisexual, pulls his new buddy in close for a night of drunken passion that Dan won’t soon forget, no matter how hard he tries. Gay panic is hardly a new topic in comedies of arrested male development; indeed, it’s practically the driving subtext beneath the whole genre. But aside from the fringier, low-budget likes of “Humpday” (and this year’s concurrent Sundance dramatic entry “The Overnight”), relatively few American movies have so directly confronted the still relatively taboo subject of male bi-curiosity, or done so by casting such an improbable duo of well-known actors.
It may well be a sign of the rarity of such depictions that a simple make-out scene can generate as much I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing laughter as it does; then again, for body-type reasons alone, Marsden and Black would probably make a pretty hilarious pairing under even the most liberated circumstances. Yet while “The D Train” scores points for taking risks, it’s not nearly as brave in terms of follow-through — and not just because the actual sex, shot in a few brief and blurry seconds, is treated as a cheap punchline.
Paul and Mogel’s script smartly braids together Dan’s ensuing confusion (mostly emotional, possibly sexual) with the various complications that develop on the work front as a result of his elaborate deception. Naturally, things only get weirder when Oliver agrees to return to Pittsburgh (played, oddly, by New Orleans) for the reunion, spurring in Dan an inchoate mixture of trauma, shame, panic, anger, jealousy and indescribable longing — he wants to put what happened behind them, but he also wants his friend to acknowledge that it meant something. Yet Oliver — ever the nonchalant, no-strings-attached hedonist, and a guy seeking escape from demons of his own — seems incapable of admitting any such thing.
On paper, it sounds like the stuff of a nervy, probing look at the straight male ego under the most unwelcome sort of siege, one that provocatively blurs the lines between friendship and attraction. In execution, however, the second half of “The D Train” can be as frustrating as it is funny, flailing about in search of the right tone of dark absurdity (established in part by Andrew Dost’s synth score), but more often falling back on easy laughs and implausible, sitcomish formulations — including the matter of 14-year-old Zach’s own burgeoning sexual curiosity — that keep the material from going deeper. Unsurprisingly in this maelstrom of male anxiety, Hahn is good enough to make you wish she had more to play than just another wife and mother, called on to exhibit superhuman levels of patience and understanding by a far less emotionally competent spouse.
Doing his most substantive screen work since his very different but equally eccentric work in “Bernie,” Black etches a singular characterization here as a man who has mastered the art (or so he thinks) of concealing the pain of constant rejection — even though his primary coping strategy, which is to talk as floridly as possible and give himself embarrassing nicknames like “D-Fresh,” tends to alienate those around him further. (He’s so awkward socially, a Mike White character is brought on in order to provide a healthy contrast.) As for Marsden, he gives arguably the film’s strongest performance, and inarguably one of his own personal best; in a turn with more than a faint whiff of good-natured self-parody, he demonstrates a rare gift for making celebrity shallowness not just amusing, but fairly intoxicating.