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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Review: The D Train (2015)

* *

Director: Jarrad Paul
Starring: Jack Black, James Marsden

Mentally, some people never leave high school, living forever in that period of youthful glory when everything still lies ahead. Usually those people, at least as depicted in the high school reunion subgenre of film, were those who were popular and are for that reason reluctant to move on. In The D Train the character living in the past is the exact opposite, a guy remembered by no one except for the other people on the alumni committee, all of whom dislike him despite the fact that his enthusiasm for the reunion probably leads to him doing the lion's share of the work, and avoid him outside the confines of the committee room. To him, the reunion is everything, and since he couldn't be the big man on campus back in high school, he wants to be the hero of the reunion party, and this melancholy comedy charts his efforts.

The man willing the reunion into existence is Dan Landsman (Jack Black), the chairman (or, at least, he styles himself as "chairman" by virtue of being the only member of the committee with the Facebook password for the reunion page) of his high school's 20th reunion committee. He is barely tolerated by the other members of the committee - which includes Jerry (Mike White), Randy (Kyle Bornheimer), Craig (Henry Zebrowski) - whom he catches going out for drinks together after the committee meeting after having told him that they were all just going to go home. Despite his seemingly bottomless need for approval and affection, Dan actually has what ought to be a pretty satisfying life in which he is appreciated by the key people around him. His wife, Stacey (Kathryn Hahn), is supportive, their teenage son, Zach (Russell Posner), looks up to him even though Dan spends a lot of time ignoring or dismissing him, and his boss, Bill (Jeffrey Tambor) respects him, even if his super old school (as in typewriter and rolodex) business practices leave Dan frustrated as he encourages him to modernize. Despite all this, there remains a void in Dan's life that only a successful reunion can fill and when it appears that the majority of his former classmates will be skipping the festivities, he starts to grow desperate.

When he spots Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the most popular guy from his class, in a commercial, he comes up with what he believes to be an ingenious plan. Convinced that if everyone thinks Oliver will be coming, they will want to come to, he begins putting the word out, though no one on the committee actually believes him when he tries to pass himself off as Oliver's good friend. Having convinced himself that without Oliver, there will be nothing, Dan comes up with a plan to fly out to Los Angeles, secure Olivier's promise to come to the party, and then return as a hero. What he doesn't anticipate is that the story he floats out to Bill, that he's got a lead on a potential contract with a businessman in LA, will prompt Bill to insist on coming along on this trip in order to help close the deal. Unable to talk himself out of the story once he's talked his way into it, Dan has to improvise as he makes the trip with Bill in tow and figure out a way to hide from him the fact that there's no deal and no contract. Despite his livelihood depending on his boss not figuring out that he's lied to him, getting to Oliver remains Dan's number one priority and he actually does manage to sell him on the idea of the reunion being fun and a perfect opportunity for an ego boost for the class' one "celebrity." While they're hanging out in LA, however, something transpires which leads Dan to believe that Oliver coming to the reunion is the last thing he wants, and as the date gets closer, Dan's life slowly begins to come apart at the seams as he struggles to keep all his secrets and lies from being exposed.

During the course of The D Train, Dan becomes completely confused about himself, unable to make sense of the things that he's done and how he feels about having done those things. The film itself seems to be just as confused, doing something that is arguably quite daring for a mainstream Hollywood movie, but struggling in the aftermath to actually do anything with that. On the one hand, it's admirable that the film, which was written by Andrew Mogel and director Jarrad Paul, treat what happens as something which shouldn't be reduced to a joke and even finds a way to flip things around on two characters (Randy and Craig) who attempt to make it into one, but on the other hand the film can't step beyond that in order to treat it as anything but "not a joke." As confused as Dan is by what happens, and as much as the film is about learning not to live in the past, neither the film nor its protagonist is particularly reflective about it and the issue doesn't get resolved so much as it merely fades away as the film sputters to a conclusion.

Though The D Train is ostensibly a comedy, it's one without many laughs. If it were funnier, one might be inclined to cut it more slack simply for being more entertaining. Black built his career on playing energetic, "wild man" type roles, but he's in fairly serious form here, evoking sadness and desperation more often than comedy. There are some quietly funny scenes between him and Tambor, particularly as Dan uses Bill's distrust of technology to manipulate him and keep his ruse going, but the scenes that really work like that are few and far between. The "high school reunion" movie has been done to death and though The D Train offers a somewhat interesting twist on the premise, it's ultimately too half-plotted to make that work, or to make it work to any interesting effect.

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