Knowing nothing more about “The D Train,” Jack Black’s new dark comedy, than what its trailer shows, you wouldn’t even get much of a sense that it is, in fact, dark. Black plays Dan Landsman, a hometown Pittsburgher who forgot to form a single ambition in life, who has made himself the tinpot dictator of his 20-year high school reunion committee and not much else in life.
He notices an old classmate named Oliver Lawless (James Marsden, or Cyclops of the “X-Men” flicks, minus the ruby shades) looking lifeguard-rugged in a sunblock ad, and hits upon an idea to save the saggy reunion: get the TV actor to RSVP, and the rest of the old gang will follow.
Now, in the trailer, it’s clear that this plan doesn’t shake out quite as Dan would hope. After Dan flies to L.A. to sway him, Oliver relents and comes to the reunion; by then, though, something has shifted, and all that should have been beer toasts and back-clapping (per Dan’s daydreams of arriving at the reunion with the one-time coolest dude in school) has warped and faded.
To say what happened in L.A. that didn’t stay in L.A. would be a spoiler that you can surely Google, if you must. Suffice it here that everything pivots, and when it does, “The D Train” goes from a flat comedy with a simple premise and unlikable protagonist to something far weirder, uncomfortably funny and memorable.
Subversively, almost, director-screenwriter tag-team Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul never pretend that any of the major characters, with the possible exception of Dan’s super-supportive wife Stacey (Kathryn Hahn), is anything approaching happy. We know to snicker at Dan’s instant fawning when he sees his chiseled former classmate hawking Banana Boat; and we know to recognize Oliver’s insouciance about Dan’s buffoonish attempts to seem cool. Oliver knows he’s a dime-a-dozen in Hollywood. When Dan swoops in to idolize him, it’s as if he has just been cast in a role he can finally nail. So he runs with it, even posing as a CEO to cover Dan’s baloney lies to his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) about why he needed to jaunt to California.
A class-of-’94 actor who’s stuck making sunscreen ads feels like a mediocrity only until he throws back shots with someone ambition forgot altogether. But once that party slows, he’s still a hack in a land where hacks go to die. Oliver’s trajectory here is one of admission — he peaked in the 11th grade, and knows it, even if none of the other mopes in his hometown realize that.
Dan, too, has to come to this conclusion, though through very different channels, that the guy he idolized (and on whom he was counting for a big ol’ reflected glow of popularity) isn’t going to provide that. Dumpy, frustrated and prone to spinning yarns, Dan could scarcely be more let down with his life.
If “The D Train” has a moral, buried in its barely concealed bleakness, it’s that whatever mistakes you make, over decades or over drinks, you just gotta own those suckers, and that lying to yourself and the people around you is the anti-cool. That’s not exactly a groundbreaking notion in itself, but “The D Train” takes an admirably risky route to get there.