1. I’m not sure why Jack Black keeps trying to insist that he’s a sad sack. After years of being a whirling dervish of lunatic, coked-up energy—while still having the fundamental performance chops and inherent charm to deftly sidestep the usual Funny Fat Guy pitfalls—he’s toning it down as he approaches middle age. (He’s 45.) And I find myself not believing it. He had a few quiet moments in Bernie, but you still could see him almost twitching to let loose his inner Jack Black. In the flop The Big Year—also from 2011, and his last big studio role, interestingly —he hitched up his pants and turned off his charisma and called this “fitting in.” And now, with The D Train, Black has turned off the magnetism that drew us to him in the first place. He plays a sad dope whose life has become one ongoing disappointment and who is mocked by everyone in his life as the biggest, most boring loser they’ve ever met ... and I spent the whole time thinking, “Don’t these people realize that’s Jack Black? Give that guy a guitar and an 8-ball and let’s party!”
2. The D Train is a stuttering, confused little comedy about Black’s character Dan, a Pittsburgh man who is the head of his high school’s 20th-reunion planning committee and performs the job with a level of seriousness that is clearly meant to clue us in that he’s a total zero lameass human being. (In case we didn’t get it, we also see him mocked at work, made fun of by the other reunion committee planners, ignored by his son, pitied by his wife, and wearing shirts in every possible variation of brown.) No one liked Dan in high school, and no one likes him now. But when he spots classmate Oliver Lawless (James Marsden, who’s good as an amoral, aging dreamboat who would be as sad as Dan if he had half as much self-awareness) in a cheesy tanning-oil commercial—Dan’s such a dweeb that he thinks this commercial means that Lawless is some sort of Oscar-winning millionaire celebrity, and the movie never stops piling it on—he decides that he must fly to Los Angeles and convince Oliver to come to the reunion so his classmates will show up. Oliver is obviously confused by Dan and barely remembers him, but he misses the adulation of high school enough that he agrees. And then—SPOILER HERE, though this happens about 15 minutes into the movie—they have sex.
3. Now, that’s an unexpected narrative turn, one that the general heavy-handedness up to then had not led me to expect. I straightened up in my seat: Maybe this movie has a few tricks up its sleeve. Would this be an awakening for Dan, the realization that the reason he had such an unhappy life was because he was living a lie? (Oliver makes a point of noting he’s more pansexual than anything else; he just has sex with whomever he’s with at that particular moment.) Would these two men who had nothing in common growing up fall in love? Would Dan show a newfound vigor and energy in his everyday life? What is going to change after this momentous event in Dan’s life?
Sad to say, the movie lacks the imagination to change much of anything at all. It’s just more of Dan getting kicked in the balls and Black, rumpled and narcotized, just frowning and looking sadly in a mirror. A wisp of a plot kicks in—Oliver poses as an executive to impress Dan’s boss, which ends up with a non-existent business deal that isn’t slightly interesting at any point—and Oliver, still a bit bewildered by Dan but mostly just not giving him much thought, comes back for the reunion after all. (Strangely, this actually works to inspire people to come to the reunion, too; this movie basically sees Pittsburgh residents as doomed yokels who can’t stop fawning over some schmuck in a tanning commercial.) And then more sad things happen to Dan.
4. The thing about Dan, as the movie keeps tiptoeing up to before scampering away, is that he clearly has some sort of personality disorder. He not only institutes such a ridiculous plan to get Oliver to the reunion to get people to come—which, in a better movie, would be a delusion anyway—that he ties it into a fake business meeting with his boss (Jeffrey Tambor, wasted again) for no reason at all. (Something several characters actively point out.) He ignores his son’s questions about a threesome with his high school girlfriend—another pointless, ridiculous subplot in a movie that has about three too many—because he’s too obsessed with trying to impress Oliver, still. He seems to lack even the most basic understanding of how human beings walk around and interact with each other. But the movie never follows that thread very far: It’s easier to retreat and just make him a misunderstood loser. Black might have been game for a dive into obsessive pathology, a look at a man who is broken for reasons having nothing to do with his circumstances, but The D Train doesn’t have much interest in that. It just wants Dan to be a sad loser. It doesn’t really care what happens to him.
5. This lack of curiosity about its main character’s inner life—this total disinterest in what makes him who he is (seriously, we don’t even get a strand of stilted backstory, even)—sort of strands Black. So he just mopes around for two hours. There’s a moment when he’s drunk (again) and sad (again), and his wife (warmly played by Kathryn Hahn) asks him what is going on with him and why he’s acting like this, as though she hasn’t been married to this guy, as though her life actually started with this movie. Black looks at her and drunkenly brays ... and you see his eyebrow, that famous demonic eyebrow, quiver for just a second. You can tell he wants to explode, to uncoil that otherworldly energy, that inherent Jack Blackness. But then he sighs and slumps back down in his chair, and she just look at him and leaves, and watching her walk away from this sorry guy, I found myself envying her. I felt for him. But I wanted to get away from him, too.
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