"The D Train" Gives New Meaning To Big Screen Bromance

“The D Train” is currently flopping harder than Pau Gasol in an NBA Finals game, well on its way to becoming the most disastrous wide theatrical release of 2015. IFC paid millions for the indie dramedy at Sundance, presumably for its bankable lead, Jack Black (“School Of Rock”), and buzzy premise (more on that in a moment).

The reality is that Black isn’t the box office draw he once was, remaining largely off-radar since a career-best performance in 2011’s “Bernie,” content to voice act in Dreamworks’ “Kung Fu Panda” series and wait for smaller, more esoteric projects. Like “The D Train.”

IFC has sold the film not as its premise, but as its set-up. 38 year-old schlubby family man (Black) flies cross-country to recruit the cool kid (James Marsden, “X-Men”) from his high school class to attend their reunion. If Dan, the aforementioned schlub, can just convince Oliver, hot guy and Banana Boat commercial actor, to come home, both will be met with a hero’s welcome.

Except, what sounds like a generic goofball comedy is anything but. IFC made a very calculated choice in keeping the actual narrative under wraps, which in hindsight, seems like an enormous miscalculation. We’ll never know. What we do know is that “The D Train” is just as fresh and well meaning as it is problematic, taking a new comedy staple – the bromance – and flipping it upside down.

If you haven’t already surmised, Dan’s man crush on Oliver turns into a drunken, drug-fueled one-night stand. They have sex and Dan’s world is changed irreparably.

Oliver’s bisexuality – addressed with a single line of dialogue – and Dan’s idolization of him makes the scene less than unexpected, but it’s still quite a development for a film billed as a buddy comedy.

That’s not to say the film isn’t a buddy comedy. It is! Which is exactly what makes it so endearing. That writers and directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul deliberately go somewhere that so few films have gone before is what so wonderfully separates it from its comedy brethren. Sexual tension between two ostensibly platonic male friends is rarely seen in movies, even less so when one has a wife and two children.

The rest of the film sees Dan consistently lie to his boss (Jeffrey Tambor, “Arrested Development”) about the nature of his trip and squirm when it comes to identifying what his secret tryst means to his home life – especially his wife (Kathryn Hahn, “Step Brothers”). The ensuing awkwardness between Dan and Oliver feels genuine, and the third act sees Black do some of his finest acting to date. Much of it without a hint of comedy.

If Marsden isn’t quite up to Black’s level, it’s because his character is a hazy one, half plot device, half directionless burn out, destined to jilt Dan into a fit of anger, jealousy, disappointment, confusion, or all of the above.

The pic’s frequent tonal problems are understandable. Less understandable is its soundtrack, a melange of 80s tunes that clumsily punctuate a reunion for people that graduated from high school in 1994. It’s synecdoche for the script’s unwieldy emotional balance beam, unable to reconcile comedic beats with the the pain at its core.

But it’s all very worthwhile, if only to see Black work at such a high level, and in something so distinct. If “The D Train” is mostly unsure of what it wants to be, it’s a forgivable kind of identity crisis. At least on the part of open-minded viewers, if not a distribution company afraid of marketing the movie they bought and paid for.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: May 8, 2015
Studio: IFC Films
Director: Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul
Screenwriter: Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul
Starring: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike White
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual material, nudity, language and drug use)