Movie review: ‘The D Train’Section 4A, Movie Review Thursday, May 7th, 2015
I don’t know what to make of Mike White’s presence in a small role in the new film D Train, or of his name in the producing credits. White, who is a successful and talented screenwriter of The Good Girl and School of Rock, first became famous for writing and starring in Chuck and Buck, a gloriously creepy movie about an emotionally stunted gay man who stalks the guy, played by Chris Weitz, who he sexually experimented with as a kid. Chuck and Buck was a big deal in queer cinema 15 years ago, and it holds up for its emotional honesty and daring storyline. I’m not sure why White would give his blessing to a weirdly unsuccessful retread of his work: D Train has a very similar plot, with Jack Black as emotionally off-kilter stalker and James Marsden as his obsession, but the movie is mystifying in its tone and themes, as undeliberately off-kilter as Chuck and Buck was deliberate.
Jack Black plays Dan Landsman, the self-appointed chair of his high school 20th reunion committee, which includes White’s character Jerry, who seems to be the only one who is remotely fond of Dan. Dan is arrogant about his likability and popularity, and yet is neither likable nor popular, as we learn early on when the rest of the committee avoids having beers with him and when he calls classmates to invite them to the reunion and none of them remember him, let alone use his various self-given nicknames, from D Man to D Fresh. It’s more than trying too hard and it’s discomfiting; Jack Black is obviously perfectly cast. One night he sees an advertisement for Banana Boat suntan lotion and it stars Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the stud of Dan’s class of 1994. Despite the doubts of his wife Stacey (Kathryn Hahn), Dan gets it into his head that if he can get Oliver to come to the reunion, everyone else from the class will, too. Oliver was that popular. He fabricates an important business meeting in Los Angeles, but he flubs the lie just enough to end up on the trip with his clueless and over-trusting boss Bill, played by Jeffrey Tambor.
When Dan arrives in L.A., Oliver reluctantly agrees to meet him for a drink. One drink becomes many, and then there’s cocaine, and then Oliver agrees to pretend to be the man Dan and his boss are supposed to meet. When this, rather bizarrely, works, the two go out partying again, and it gets much crazier than before. Now for the spoiler alert: While this plot point happens early in the film, it’s still not mentioned in the trailer and would perhaps spoil a surprise. So, you’ve been warned. Drunk, high and elated, Oliver and Dan have sex. Openly bisexual, Oliver is totally at ease with the event, but Dan is freaked out. And when Oliver agrees to come to the reunion and stay at Dan and Stacey’s house, things get even more freaky as Dan’s lies begin to unravel. And how they unravel.
While Chuck and Buck’s plot was somewhat shocking if ultimately believable, D Train’s plot is a conceit in search of grounded reality. While drugs and alcohol can lead to odd choices, unless Dan was actually somewhat attracted to men, sleeping with Oliver doesn’t seem plausible. Dan’s attraction to Oliver is depicted not as sexual but as desperate. Dan insists he’s straight throughout, and the film doesn’t contradict his statements; Oliver is the guy Dan desperately wants to be, or at least be validated by, and having sex with him is just an extreme way of handling this desperation.
But this is my generous interpretation, not what is clearly communicated by writer-directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul. I think the film is attempting to skewer the puerile desire to be popular, to be a certain kind of manly and certain kind of successful. But Mogel and Paul can never settle on a consistent tone, either satirical or naturalistic, never truly explore Dan’s sadness or shame, never treat Stacey more than an innocent bystander. And Oliver is just a careless, hedonistic bisexual, barely shaded into a sympathetic, let alone authentic, character. While watching, I kept thinking that White could have turned all of this into something special. Then I realized he did, 15 years ago.
The D Train
Written and directed by Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul
Starring Jack Black, James Marsden and Kathryn Hahn
Opens May 8 at your local multiplex
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