Sundance 2015: ‘The D Train’ promises a fun, twisty ride

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The D Train
Written & Directed by Andrew Mogel & Jarrad Paul
USA, 2015

The D Train starts as a predictable buddy-comedy, only to swerve into a completely unexpected direction.  It’s a movie that might have lived comfortably in the ‘80s, alongside other raunchy R-rated comedies that never forgot to bring a little heart.  Jack Black continues to evolve as a comedic actor, learning when to turn on his persona and when to disappear into character.  The writing is sharp, smart, and determined to give us something unpredictable.  Most importantly, it’s funny as hell.

Dan Landsman (Black) is that invisible guy who used to sit in the back of your Social Studies class.  He was a legend in his own mind, building empires of popularity and crushing the chicks in his juiced-up sports car.  Twenty years later, Dan is the self-appointed chairman of the alumni committee, leading the charge for their next High School reunion.  When Dan’s RSVP requests are treated with the same regard as traffic tickets, he has a brainstorm; convince the most popular kid in school, Oliver (James Marsden), to come to the reunion and recapture the glory days.

Being the world-class liar that he is, Dan concocts an unnecessarily-elaborate ruse to track down Oliver in Los Angeles, fooling his boss (Jeffrey Tambor), his wife (Kathryn Hahn), and quite possibly himself in the process.  It’s a small price to pay to convince everyone that he and Oliver are best buddies.  As the lies multiply and the repercussions mount, however, Dan begins to question everything he thought he knew about himself.

It sounds like the stuff of weekly sitcoms, but the writer-director tandem of Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul has something a bit more substantive to say.  They make Dan a deeply flawed character saddled with years of emotional baggage.  He seems to have it all—beautiful wife, loving child, secure job—but it’s not enough to soothe his fragile ego whenever the gang doesn’t invite him out for drinks.  This keeps Dan’s quest not only believable, but a constant source of humor, as well.  You’re never quite sure how far Mogel and Paul will push Dan’s masquerade.  The stakes are surprisingly high for a comedy, and when Dan finally gets his comeuppance, your heart genuinely aches for him.

It would be criminal to reveal the twist that elevates The D Train to loftier heights.  Rest assured, however, that it’s unexpected, shocking, and hilarious.  In fact, Mogel and Paul keep their film consistently funny, relying less on gags and more on interpersonal dynamics.  The humor flows from the characters, with jokes meticulously constructed over the course of the film.  Some of the humor may be a bit broad at times, but it never descends into the realm of farce.  Everything feels real and organic, even if you can’t believe what’s happening.

Jack Black is terrific.  He can communicate more with an eyebrow than most actors can with their entire body.  His unique combination of fearlessness and funny makes him tops among comedic actors right now.  The supporting cast chips in, as well, holding their own with the scene-stealing Black.  James Marsden, in particular, adds a few more layers to his impossibly-handsome beefcake.  He’s just as big of a mess as Black’s character, but he doesn’t have the luxury of playing it for laughs.  Plus, he makes us care about this narcissistic playboy, which is no small accomplishment.

The D Train is a rare instance of ‘slow burn’ comedy.  It hums along, building toward a resolution that doesn’t need elaborate set pieces or outlandish sight gags to feel satisfying.  You’ll laugh… a lot.  You’ll also squirm in your seat a bit more than you’re probably expecting.  Luckily, we’ve got Jack Black to keep us company on all the twists and turns.  That’s more than enough reason to catch The D Train.

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