We’ve all heard the story of the unpopular and popular kids in high school. It’s been told so many times that you’d think the movie industry would move on. It usually goes like this: the popular kid peaks in high school and spends the rest of his life reminiscing over his glory days and never moves on. Well, The D Train chooses to focus on the other side of the spectrum and takes us on a familiar ride, but not one without its own twists.
Dan (Jack Black) has pathetically low self esteem, no friends, and a job where his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) refuses to come into the 21st century and use proper computers and equipment. Dan is the head of the alumni committee and is busy trying to plan their high school’s 20-year reunion but can’t get anyone to come. On a lucky whim, Dan happens to see a commercial for Banana Boat sunscreen. The lead in the commercial is none other than Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), who was the most popular guy in high school.
Sensing an opportunity, Dan becomes obsessed with the commercial and goes on about how he and Oliver were friends in high school. Convincing his alumni committee that if Oliver RSVP’d, then everyone would want to come to the reunion. Lying to his boss and his wife (Kathryn Hahn) about a bogus business meeting, Dan flies out to Los Angeles in order to convince Oliver to come to the reunion, but ends up biting off more than he can chew.
Jack Black has always had a knack for playing characters that are either funny, strange, awkward, or all three at the same time. In this case, while the film has its funny moments, Black’s character is not funny in it, but rather a bit disturbing in his obsession with being popular and with Oliver. He plays an entirely pathetic and manipulative character who doesn’t deserve redemption or sympathy given all that he does. And in this case, Black’s portrayal is very well done because he’s meant to be this way. He’s not just doing funny things like he usually does, there are more issues his character has and he’s able to portray that.
James Marsden comes off as the “cool guy”, but is also dealing with his own issues. He makes everyone feel like his best friend but never fully commits to the person. He and Jack Black have an interesting dynamic that plays week onscreen. There’s the brief bromance, the avoidance between them, and the conflict that is all always underlying in every action and event.
The film isn’t about “how to rekindle popularity 101” or “how to make friends with the popular guy”. It’s about moving on, realizing that there’s much more after high school than making yourself out to be someone you’re not, and that you have to get over yourself. What I enjoyed most was the idea about putting someone on a pedestal and how a person will act a certain way in order to fulfill your image of them. And whether or not that’s really them is not the question, but it’s the idea of how we define ourselves by other people because we live in a comparison culture, especially as Jack Black is always checking his Facebook and freaking out over every little thing someone posts who looks like they’re living charmed lives when he’s miserable.
The D Train is a familiar story told in a fresh way. It’s about growing up, letting go, and about deceiving appearances. It’s a film you’re not sure how it will end and the kind that’s easily marketable to general audiences. There’s a valuable lesson here. While a lot of it isn’t shed light upon until the end, and some plot points are used as more of a shock factor, the story still works. One thing is clear, high school should stay where it belongs: in the past.
Sundance Premiere Date: January 23, 2015 | Directors and Screenwriters: Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul | Cast: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Kyle Bornheimer | Genre: Comedy