Film

Jack Black Plays Too Nice but Offers One Great Surprise in The D Train

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One of the most inspired ideas in late-middle Woody Allen pictures comes in Deconstructing Harry, a movie about how Allen loves Bergman, hates Philip Roth, and isn’t quite clear on what “deconstruction” means. Allen stages passages from fiction written by the protagonist, a novelist named Harry; one features Robin Williams as a screen actor who, in his real life, has gone out of focus. He’s no use on set, as the camera can’t film him, and at home his wife, played by Julie Kavner, can only suggest he go lie down.

Sometimes, in other movies, when Williams himself dialed back and attempted to portray some likable everyman, he, too, seemed to blur a bit, radiating vague sincerity and niceness but not always suggesting an actual human being. Now, in The D Train, it’s Jack Black who is going indistinct on us. He plays a smiling schlemiel, the nicest of nice guys, a chipper townie whose life is centered around bringing everyone back for his twenty-year high school reunion. He’s a husband and father, but the reunion seems to be the only thing that matters to him. Just why is never clear; this is one of those movies where any summary of the plot would demand frequent use of the words “for some reason.”

The film nudges us to find him ridiculous, but it also asks us to feel sorry for him when the rest of the alumni committee goes out for drinks without him. Problem is, the people hurting his feelings are the first characters we can identify with: Can’t we go to that bar, too, where people act like people, rather than follow this unfathomable drip?

No, we have to follow Black’s Dan on an adventure that will shake up his life, remind him what matters, and never really bring him into focus. He pulls a reverse City Slickers, hightailing it to Los Angeles to corral Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), an actor in commercials who was once the high school’s most popular dude, and secure his RSVP for the reunion. One believable detail: Everyone in town still calls him “Lawless.”

But such attentiveness to real-world behavior is rare. For some reason Dan tricks his boss into flying him out there under the guise of some potential windfall for their business — and the boss (Jeffrey Tambor) decides to tag along, meaning we get many scenes of the hoariest of sitcom setups: A liar comes this close to coming clean, but then can’t. Why Dan wouldn’t pay for his own ticket and spare himself a potentially career-killing farce is a question that eventually even the script asks — but don’t expect an answer.

But there is a strong, surprising twenty-minute bromance in the middle that justifies the film’s existence, if not its listlessness and familiarity. Starstruck Dan goads Lawless into hanging out, and we suss out before Dan does that the actor’s broke, going nowhere, and a little embarrassed at how much he needs Dan’s admiration. They indulge in coke, hit a strip joint, and dish about the women Lawless had in high school. Then, for once, something surprising happens, something that snaps Black’s character into focus, something you should stop reading now if you don’t want spoiled.

Here goes: They hook up. All the way. With unembarrassed passion, the subtext of every Franco/Rogen comedy suddenly becomes the text. We don’t see anything more than kissing and some morning-after shots of Black in tighty-whities, but briefly this tiresome film becomes something more: At last, Dan has made an interesting decision. He’s coming into focus.

Too bad the third act returns us to the same pattern of nice-guy secret-keeping, from both his family and boss. (Tambor, of course, sharpens up every scene he’s in.) It all bottoms out when Lawless comes to town for the reunion, and Black’s cheery blur becomes a frowny blur, jealous that Lawless isn’t paying enough attention to him — a conflict that stirs little empathy and even fewer laughs. The D Train has one great idea, a couple strong jokes, and a void at its center — a man who is only believable when he briefly becomes specific.

Written and directed by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel. Starring Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Mike White, Kyle Bornheimer, and Jeffrey Tambor.