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The D Train

May 8, 2015
The D Train

Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s The D Train is a movie ahead of its time. No, it’s not an instant classic, and its not likely to get lukewarm reviews that get revised upwards in retrospect ten years from now. But it comes from a place that, unfortunately, most audiences are just not ready to meet it, and the filmmakers’ attempts to reach back towards an audience mostly end up hobbling what could otherwise have been a more youthful and sensitive film.

We haven’t heard much from Jack Black since 2012’s Bernie and 2011’s The Big Year, but The D Train continues his trend away from the bombastic comedies of his earlier career. He plays Dan Landsman, the self-appointed chair of the reunion committee for the Pittsburgh high school his son still attends. He doesn’t really seem to fit in with the rest of the committee, though, and doesn’t really seem to have had a lot of friends in high school. It’s kind of hard to understand why he even cares; it seems like he’s desperate to fit in anywhere, and the reunion is at least a place they can’t turn him away entirely.

Not many people are signing up to come back for the 20th reunion, but one night Dan gets an idea to save the day. He sees none other than Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) on a late-night sunscreen ad, and if he can get the former most popular kid in school — the guy who Made It — to show up, the rest of their class will come back too.

Dan quickly sets up a trip out to L.A. to meet up with Oliver. He concocts a ruse for his wife (Kathryn Hahn) and boss (Jeffrey Tambor), and tries, badly, to play cool for Oliver. And while it works — Oliver agrees to come back — Dan spends so much effort trying to deal with the fallout of his plans that his home life goes to hell, and all out of admiration for a guy who is obviously a washout in the real world.

But the most interesting point comes in the form of a surprise, and so I’ll give a warning here. It’s good, and comes from a good place, but the script often strikes an awkward and even uncomfortable tone, for reasons I’ll go into now.

The thing is, while Dan is out wooing Oliver, he woos a little too hard; they end up in bed together, and not just to sleep off their bender. Oliver’s sexuality is somewhat fluid, but this is a big blow to Dan’s already shaky self-image. Mogel and Paul clearly want to tell a story about how Dan can come to terms with this experience, and they’re coming from a place beyond simple gay-panic stories and jokes, but American audiences — even for indie comedies like this — are still not beyond that point.

The way we conceive of sexuality is undergoing a slow, quiet revolution. For various reasons women have had this somewhat easier: if a woman fools around with one of her friends in college, we easily dismiss it as experimentation, or a phase, and we have no trouble allowing her to identify as “basically straight” if she chooses to. On the other hand, if two men are ever physically intimate they’re both irrevocably gay forever. But even though that’s not really true for Dan — or for anyone — he has to struggle to overcome that idea and integrate the experience into his idea of himself: he’s just a guy who fooled around with another guy once.

The catch is that while many people like me understand this side of the story, most Americans are still hung up on the forever-gay idea, and the filmmakers play to that section of the audience with lots of humor that basically boils down to “ew, gay stuff!” And this undercuts the efforts to push the idea that some guys have fooled around with other guys, but they’re still basically straight — that sexuality is a messier and more complicated thing that can’t be boiled down to just a handful of neat categories.

At its best, The D Train is sweet and thoughtful, and it’s at the vanguard of a popular culture embracing this new, more nuanced view of human sexuality. But, being out on the edge, it’s not yet confident enough of that position to leave behind the gay-panic material that most of the audience still expects. It’s a flawed, shaky step, but it’s distinctly a step forwards.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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