Jack Black's comedic talents are unquestioned. From his brash, bombastic breakthrough role in the superb High Fidelity, he has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to seize a scene by the throat and thrash comedy out of it. Not always subtle, but generally effective. He's the irascible, often lovable character actor, a bit plump and goofy, living largely on the surface.
But lurking just below is a more complex artist. Margot at the Wedding and Bernie rewarded us with glimpses of the troubled character who is more than the sum of his pratfalls, physical comedy, loud posturing and easy laughs.
There are no easy laughs in The D Train. This humor is earned the hard way... cutting into character and peeling back the skin. The character Black creates, Dan Landsman, is the undistinguished, forgettable nebbish who has never left his hometown, nor even succeeded at his dead end job. He survives by keeping his boss, Jeffrey Tambour, his wife, Kathryn Hahn, and his son, Russell Posner, at some length while pretending to be working on important tasks.
He bolsters his ego by referring to himself in the third person by a variety of nicknames such as D Train or D Fresh, failed attempts to ingratiate or elevate his profile in the eyes of others... hollow posturing, irritating over familiarity ratcheting up his un-likeableness.
Dan's high school reunion provides him with the chance to rewrite history and inflate the present. He tries to take control of the reunion committee, hoarding the computer password, issuing un-followed orders to committee members and falsely claiming to be the chairman. He is largely ignored, excluded from their social gatherings and treated derisively.
To redeem his de-valued social currency, Dan hatches a plan. He'll persuade former high school star Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) to attend the reunion. Lawless has become the national spokesperson for Banana Boat Sunscreen, his face plastered over national television. To recruit him and bask in this reflected glory, Dan must travel to Hollywood.
Things do not go quite as planned. Dan's false bravado and Oliver's own identity issues intersect in cringe worthy comedic fashion fueling Hollywood, home and reunion encounters. The fragile world of Dan's family which seems to be founded on cognitive dissonance and denial collapses under the weight of Oliver's introduction. The reunion fares no better. It is in resolution, as much as it is possible, that we find out more about the characters.
Writers and directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul spent three years working on the project. Paul drew on his acting experiences and Mogel on various writing. Although they heavily credit the fine ensemble for their work, it is clear that their vision and engineering more than kept The D Train on track.