© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Film Review: Jack Black Isn't Afraid To Take 'The D Train' To Deep, Dark Places

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
IFC Films
James Marsden (left) and Jack Black bring surprising secrets to their high school reunion in 'The D Train.'

Based on its trailer and the reputation of its rowdy star, one might expect the new Jack Black comedy The D Train to be thick with predictable shenanigans involving the pot-bellied man-child at its center. But the writing and directing team of Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul give Black unexpected layers of complex emotion to make a profound statement about contemporary male sexuality.

Playing Dan Landsman, the self-elected chairman of the high school alumni group tasked with recruiting attendees for their 20-year reunion, Black will be familiar to his fans. At once pompous and socially awkward, he’s not having much luck populating the reunion or befriending his fellow committee members: After they've told him they're going home, he sees them walking together into a bar. It’s not that he’s annoying, stupid, or a bully; it’s just that his neediness and brittle self-esteem require too much maintenance. He’s more sad than anything, which Black’s elastic face easily communicates.

One night in front of the television, he sees a commercial for a sun tan lotion called Banana Boat. It stars Oliver Lawless, one of his alleged friends from the high school drama club. Played by the never- unhandsome James Marsden, Oliver seems to be Dan’s solution. Dan concocts a phony business trip to Los Angeles in hopes of convincing Oliver to come back to Pittsburgh, which would lend some credibility to his reunion effort.

On the way to getting drunk and high in a bar, Oliver discloses that he has sex with women and men but rejects the “label” of bisexual. Before sunrise the next morning, Oliver and Dan experience how fluid sexuality can be, especially when inhibitions have evaporated. In a movie less intelligent than this one, the formula of the rest of the narrative would be unsubtle variations of Dan’s “gay panic.” Black’s character does show some of that (especially in bed with his wife, played by the witty Kathryn Hahn) but is less panicky than remorseful and perhaps even intrigued.

It’s not surprising the reunion goes off with several hitches. What is surprising is how respectfully and seriously the creators and cast treat this material. Without any eye-rolling or wincing, The D Train manages to be funny, thoughtful, and provocative about a basic fact of human nature: that a person’s expression of sexuality is nuanced, fascinating, and nobody’s business.

The D Train | Dir. Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul | 97 min. | Opening on May 8.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.