The D Train is an odd little movie, which might surprise those whose knowledge of the film is limited to TV ads that frame it as a run-of-the-mill bro comedy about a nebbish class reunion organizer (Jack Black) who gets in over his head when trying to convince the most popular guy from his class (James Marsden) to attend their 20th. While all of this is true, the trailer leaves out a major part of the equation that ultimately becomes the central focus of one of the stranger buddy comedies in recent memory.
Now I’m going to spoil the movie for everyone else. (I don’t want to, I have to.)
The setup is this: married management consultant Dan (Black) – who is universally disregarded by everyone in Pittsburgh and whose place on the reunion committee is more important to him than his own son – is going out of his way to get Oliver Lawless (Marsden) – whose claim to fame is the lead in a Banana Boat sunscreen spot – to come home for reunion in the hopes of getting other people to follow suit (Hey, famous guy will be there!) and save the reunion, making him the hero and retroactively validating his entire existence. Before long, Dan is completely obsessed with landing Oliver – so much so that he fakes a business trip to Los Angeles (his adorably clueless boss, played by Jeffrey Tambor, tags along) in the hopes of convincing Oliver in person.
Oliver, meanwhile, is clearly disappointed with his stalled acting career and not in a good place emotionally. When he meets Dan at a Hollywood hotspot and Dan suggests that being the Banana Boat guy must make him popular with the girls, Oliver replies, “Yeah – girls, guys, whatever,” adding that he doesn’t believe in labels. Dan recovers quickly and keeps at him about the reunion, but self-medicating Oliver is more interested in coke, booze, and strip clubs.
And then, after a particularly debaucherous night out… they do it.
Suddenly a wacky Hangover-style comedy about a guy who is pushed way outside his comfort zone becomes a vulgar but rather poignant character study about a guy who is pushed way outside his comfort zone. Dan isn’t gay, and probably wouldn’t even consider himself bi, even though he just got banged by his high school idol. He’s happily married to a woman (Kathryn Hahn, who seriously must work 24 hours a day to be as ubiquitous as she has been lately) and for him, sex is about emotional intimacy. For Oliver, sex is clearly about power and validating his self-worth. So after the two guys do it and Oliver starts to treat Dan like just another lay, it sends Dan into a tailspin.
It’s a pretty subversive idea for a movie, especially one disguised as a bro comedy: what happens when bromance blossoms into romance (one-sided, maybe, but still)? It’s extremely tricky territory to navigate, and very few movies have pulled off telling this kind of story well. Mike White’s wonderfully squirmy Chuck & Buck managed to stick the landing a decade ago by playing things completely… well, straight (White appears in a small role here, likely no coincidence). Lynn Shelton’s charming Humpday also did a great job of drawing a fine between men who are progressive in their views of sexuality and men who are sexually progressive. It’s a tango on a tightrope over a pit of rusty shrapnel – even the slightest false move can topple the movie and raise the pitchforks of viewers (myself included) who don’t appreciate seeing their sexuality used as a plot device. (Chuck and Larry, I’m looking anywhere but at you.)
While that’s thankfully not the case here, The D Train’s attempts to have it both ways unfortunately don’t work nearly as well as Oliver’s do. The movie is either an unfunny comedy or an uncharacteristically flippant drama, depending on how you look at it – and neither result is as entertaining or as emotionally engaging as the material demands. While both actors are game with the edgy concept (the supernaturally youthful Marsden in particular nails the balance of gorgeous jerk and sad softie needed to make Oliver feel like more than an outtake from an Axe Body Spray commercial, or, even worse, a cliched “evil bisexual” who’s only here to fuck with everyone), the solid premise feels half-baked in its execution, with too many diversions and sideplots needlessly diluting the story.
Still, you have to give them points for trying, and for they take the idea all the way to its breaking point with minimal gay panic and only a few cheap jokes. Sex is complicated, and so is friendship – especially among teenage guys living on a broad spectrum of self-esteem. These characters are nearly 40, but their relationships are still largely defined by their high school pack system and its alpha-fearing hierarchies. It’s hard to watch Dan systematically destroy his life over the affections of another man because – let’s face it, guys – many of us have been there. The fact that he’s not even gay is, at the end of the day, irrelevant; all men seek attention and affection from other men in many forms. Most of us just aren’t lucky enough to find that affection in a hot night in the sack with James Marsden.
As I said earlier, The D Train is an interesting movie, and I found it brave in its willingness to ask mature questions about sexuality and emotional intimacy between men. It’s unfortunately just not funny enough to meet the audience expectations it sets up by framing itself as a comedy, and drags a bit until the one-night-stand flips the script. (It feels much longer than 97 minutes.) But it’s a film with bona fide Hollywood actors tackling gay material in a way that’s not offensive and seems to genuinely want to broaden the discussion of sexuality, and that’s a train I’m happy to hop aboard.