PARK CITY – The concept of “The D Train,” which premiered Friday at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, may sound somewhat familiar. An everyday family man who has never moved out of his hometown discovers the most popular guy in high school is now a successful actor in Hollywood. Our hero decides to go to Los Angeles to convince his idol to return for their high school reunion. If he comes back, said hero will finally be “the man” and earn some respect from his former schoolmates. Sure, it hasn't exactly been made before, but there are numerous elements in the premise you've no doubt seen over the past few decades on both the small and big screen. What makes “D Train” unique is the commitment from directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul to center the storyline around one outrageous moment and then completely ride it out to an even more jaw-dropping conclusion.
[Spoiler alert: In order to adequately critique “D Train,” a major event that occurs in the second act will be discussed in this review. If you do not want this revealed, read no further.]
Meet Dan Landsman (Jack Black). This Pittsburgh area native has a wife who loves him (a fantastic Kathryn Hahn) and a teenage son who desperately wants to connect with him (Russell Posner), but Dan is strangely fixated on making his high school reunion his number one priority. He might be alienating everyone else on the alumni committee while doing so, but so be it. Dan is someone who just tries too hard. It can make his personality grating and, in many ways, Black is the perfect actor to play this sort of exaggerated character. One of the film's slight faults is that Dan almost becomes too much of a caricature, but Black does his best to pull back the reins during those borderline moments.
One night Dan recognizes a former classmate, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), as the star of a TV commercial for Banana Boat sunscreen (if the film becomes buzzworthy, the company has seriously hit the jackpot in free publicity). With his fellow committee members basically laughing in his face, Dan concocts a plan to go to LA and convince Oliver to come to the reunion. If Oliver attends, more people will RSVP (they have had issues getting the class to commit) and Dan will finally be “the man” to all his peers. Taking advantage of his boss' faith in him, Dan uses company funds for the trip under the guise of setting up a major business deal. Once in Hollywood, he reaches out to Oliver and convinces him to go out for a drink where he'll make his pitch. That's where the movie takes a surprising turn.
It's important to note that none of the film's big moments could work without James Marsden portraying Oliver with just the right amount of legitimate cool and LA poser insecurity. As much as he's a success in Dan's eyes, he still lives in a small studio apartment and hasn't made it to the big time yet. Dan's idolization is almost a welcome respite from his actual position in the Hollywood pecking order. On the second night of Dan's stay they party like crazy. Drinking, cocaine, you name it. For Dan, this is the sort of adventure and acceptance he's only day-dreamed of. It's almost too good to be true. Eventually, the duo end up at Oliver's apartment where, much to the audience's surprise, Oliver seduces Dan and they hook up. It's funny not because it's two men having sex, but because Dan's character can't believe someone of Oliver's stature would actually be interested in him in this way. Of course, then there is a shot where Dan is on the receiving end of Oliver sexually. It's just one short image and it's simply hilarious.
The fact Mogel and Paul are able to get away with this without it being sold as a “disgusting” moment of man-on-man sex is quite remarkable. Yes, some viewers will sadly see it this way. In the context of the movie's storyline, however, this scene is important as it sends Dan into a personal tailspin. Not because of the act itself, but because of what it might mean. While Oliver had previously told Dan he “doesn't label himself,” neither man is explicitly gay. Still, Dan isn't sure how to handle all of this emotionally. When Oliver actually shows up for the reunion just a few weeks later, the filmmakers don't tip-toe around what could have been left as just one shocking scene in a more predictable storyline. Dan's increasing confusion on what to feel about his night with Oliver leads to a conclusion that is cringe-worthy only because you just can't believe how it's all, no pun intended, coming out.
Mogel and Paul have a lot they are trying to accomplish with “The D Train” and at times it really is too much. They even included a self-referential joke about how Dan's workplace storyline is probably unnecessary and the first half of the film is simply not as funny as you want it to be. That being said, Marsden's career-best turn and a superb third act really turn things around. And as nearly grating as Black's portrayal of Dan can be, by the end? You're pretty much cheering for him.
“The D Train” is currently looking for distribution, but by the time you read this it will likely already have a home and will soon be on its way to a theater near you.