Monday, May 22, 2017
THE D TRAIN
I don't remember much about high school. People think I'm lying when I say that, but it's true. Grades one through six are more vivid to me. By high school I was twiddling my thumbs, in a hurry to get on with my life. I was never too concerned with who was popular and who who wasn't. Some people, like the ones portrayed in The D Train, find high school to be a kind of melting pot of anxieties, with many poor unfortunates tripping over themselves to gain entry in one elusive clique or another. As for high school reunions, I've never wanted to attend one because I think I'd be bored. I do, however, enjoy movies about class reunions. There are some basic truths in them - most of us don't mature much beyond the age of 16, and even the best of us can be driven to distraction by petty shit. For some, high school is comparable to the measles or the mumps, a childhood illness with lingering effects in our adult years.
Jack Black plays Dan Landsman, a regular fellow who is part of his graduating class' 20-year-reunion committee. By most measuring sticks, he's done pretty well in life. He has a nice wife, a son, a home in the suburbs, and a good job. But Dan, deep down, is still plagued by the insecurities that made his high school years a nightmare. He even warns his son to not trust a girl who likes him in case it's a prank. Worse, Dan still talks in the kind of faux hip hop style of the 1990s, addressing everyone as "bro" and "dude" and "wassup dawg," which sounds ridiculous coming from a man 20 years out of high school. How he was able to marry and spawn is the movie's real mystery, but The D Train doesn't want to explore Dan Landsman; it wants to punish him a little. When he learns that the most popular kid in his class, Oliver Lawless (played by James Marsden in full James Franco mode), is now in Hollywood appearing in sunscreen commercials, he decides to lure Oliver to the reunion and become popular by association.
It's also a bit of the old "be careful what you wish for" scenario, as Dan bluffs his way to Los Angeles, charms Lawless into attending the reunion, only to find himself quickly absorbed into Lawless' life of partying and reckless sex. It's not clear how Lawless went from being the star of his high school basketball team to a coke-snorting bisexual, but this movie doesn't care enough about its characters to investigate such a thing. It offers a few cheap jokes, plus one or two scenes that are meant to shock us, but little else. It exists solely to trumpet the sophomoric idea that male bonding is a front for homoerotic longing. By the end, Dan Landsman "lands his man," so to speak, but the lesson he learns, you can't be something you're not, dude, feels like something from a high school essay. It all ends happily, because high school reunion movies must. Call it the Romy and Michelle rule.
Black is very fine as Dan, and as he showed in Bernie (2012), and intermittently throughout his career, he's brilliant as characters who walk the line between likable and not. Watching him struggle to lure Lawless to the reunion, and then swaggering at Lawless' side as they navigate through the L.A. nightlife, just about makes the movie worth watching. It also leaves one frustrated. So cocky is The D Train, so in love with its own cheap tricks and plot twists, that it never uses Black to his fullest, the way Richard Linklater used him in Bernie, where Black played a funeral director who worked his way into the life of a wealthy widow. Linklater, who directed Black in School of Rock many years ago, knows that Black is one of those comedic actors who, like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, can shrug off the manic side to reveal something grim. Since Black's comic persona is wearing thin, it's comforting to know he can still be around for years to come, playing seedy guys, inept criminals, and Ponzi schemers. If Martin Scorsese can give Jonah Hill the role of a lifetime in The Wolf of Wall Street, there must be something similar out there for Jack Black.