‘The D-Train’ Dynamites The Bromance Comedy

The D-Train, from IFC Films, opens today in about 1000 locations. Here’s my original review from Sundance.

The D-Train is not for squares, and it’s not for snobs, which is what’s so great about it. It’s also a bold choice at Sundance, where squares and snobs make up the bulk of the audience. Imagine if Election-era Alexander Payne did a take-off on the ever-popular bromance/gay panic comedy, and you’re in the neighborhood. Not a dissection of the genre, just a film exploring the same themes in a more honest way that’s still within the context of a comedy. It’s the kind of comedy I love that never gets its due: transgressive, but transgressive as a side-product of honest comedy writing. That cuts through the usual bullsh*t because it simply has no time for bullsh*t, not because the goal was to bend genres. It’s adult and risqué without being “outrageous,” and it’s sweet in a way that feels earnest and not the result of an exec demanding it have “more heart.” I think I loved it.

Written and directed by Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul (mostly unknown beyond their co-writing credit on Yes Man), The D-Train stars Jack Black as the loser-ish (of course) number two man at a heartland consulting firm run by Jeffrey Tambor. That he’s constantly exploiting the old man’s computer illiteracy is mildly funny (especially in the hands of one of the all-time great comedic actors like Tambor) and probably the most conventional part of the script (the kind of mannered comedy this crowd would eat up like so much locally-sourced produced). Black’s Dan Landsman is the self-appointed chairman of his high school’s reunion committee, and when he sees his old classmate Oliver Lawless (played by James Marsden) starring in a late night commercial for Banana Boat, he gets it in his head that what’s really going to make this reunion a success is getting Lawless to show up. If anything, it proves that you don’t need an unconventional premise to make an unconventional movie.

A wise man once said that obsession is the root of comedy, but Black’s obsession with his classmate stretches the bounds of credulity so far and so uncomfortably that it’s sure to turn off a decent chunk of the audience, an even bigger chunk than those who’ve already written off Jack Black (don’t, he may have made some bad decisions, he also made Bernie and Tenacious D). Look, I know I can’t convince anyone not to be put off by a somewhat grating character, but I swear, accepting this plot will all be worth it in the end. So many comedies toy with the idea of the man crush, but always on one side of an invisible line, as if it’s cute to act kinda gay, as long as the guys doing it are DEFINITELY NOT GAY. Grab-assing is hilarious! nohomo nohomo nohomo. The D-Train breezes right over that line and says, “See? That wasn’t such a big deal, was it?”

The normal, festival movie thing to do when crossing a genre boundary like this would be to make the entire film a monument to its own transgressiveness, complete with framed picture and commemorative plaque. The D-Train just treats the line like it was never there in the first place and carries on making a comedy movie (a damn funny one, I might add). That’s so much more punk rock. Most people won’t notice because they’re not being spit on, but that’s their problem.

The D-Train has a truly beautiful way of taking what feels like conventional, stock comedy characters early in the film and turning them into nuanced, totally unique but entirely believable ones. Jack Black’s character has a goofy-ish, 14-year-old son, played by Russell Posner. The expected thing to do with this character would be to have bully troubles or some variation on the usual, high school outcast drama, but instead, Black’s son needs advice on having a threesome with his girlfriend, played by Danielle Greenup, another totally unique (and brilliantly acted) character. Both of these characters are such a refreshing departure from the usual bullsh*t that I want to kiss Mogel and Paul on the mouth. But again, they don’t waste any time congratulating themselves. They get straight to the point: making comedy. Specifically, a scene where Marsden’s Lawless offers Posner his hilariously frank threesome advice: “You gotta stack ’em up, like lawn chairs,” he says, putting one palm atop another, a point which later becomes the basis for an even funnier sight gag.

If you haven’t been paying attention, you could be forgiven for seeing this and being surprised at how good a comedy actor James Marsden is, but he’s been bringing it pretty consistently since playing Liz Lemon’s boyfriend on 30 Rock. D-Train is an even better showcase for his particular set of skills, utilizing his matinee idol looks, comedic timing and relatability in equal measure, while nailing every subtle detail of “LA aspiring actor bro” along the way (the shades, the jewelry, the slouch beanie — it’s dead on). This in a film that also has Jeffrey Tambor and a perfectly-cast Kathryn Hahn (who I firmly believe should be in every comedy) in supporting roles. None of these feel like stunt-casting moves. The actors all feel like they were chosen because they were a perfect match for the character. That may seem like a small thing, but it’s not, not in a world where f*cking Zac Efron is coming back for f*cking Neighbors 2: Still Living Next Door To Each Other.

The D-Train has the occasional overplayed moment or joke that falls flat, that boring critics will surely call uneven or inconsistent as an insult. But its ending is so on-point and on-topic that it makes up for any incomplete attempts before it. It’s comedy without gimmick. Effortlessly transgressive, insightful, earnest without schmaltz and relatable with an edge. People who write or perform comedy, we see a lot of comedy we can’t stand that we usually soft-peddle our reactions to so as not to seem like bitter, jealous f*cks (an accusation we fear because it’s almost always at least partly true). The D-Train is that rare bird, a comedy that reminds me why I love comedy.

Grade: A-

IFC Films has picked up the rights to The D-Train for $3 million, with plans for a nationwide release. No date has been set.

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.