Written and directed by Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, “The D Train” starts out looking like a fairly standard-issue comedy of midlife crisis: suburban Pittsburgh resident Dan Landsman (Jack Black) jumps, with more certainty than one would think, to the conclusion that the best way to make more of his old classmates sign up for the upcoming reunion is to make sure that coolest-kid-in-school Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) goes to the reunion as well. But when Dan’s convinced his masterstroke of social engineering will — and must! — work, that’s when “The D Train” goes along a very different set of tracks than you might think.
As Landsman, Black gives what may be the performance of his career, with his usual outward explosive energy imploded into doubt, insecurity and that all-too-common sense that his simple life isn’t enough. Seeing Oliver buff, tanned and smiling on a Banana Boat sunscreen TV ad beamed, seemingly, direct from the sunshiny West Coast into Dan’s dark house inspires a little madness in Dan, convincing him he has to go out to L.A. to make his pitch directly, even if that means lying to his boss (Jeffrey Tambor, hilarious but never phony) about a big deal that he might land out there.
As Oliver, Marsden’s a real pleasure to watch, too, full of undeserved swagger, sexually omnivorous, coked up and yet, yes, utterly charismatic. When he and Dan have a night out that seems to end in bonding before it actually ends in bed, Dan heads back East to his wife (Kathryn Hahn, who should have been given more to do) and children desperately hoping his plan is a failure, never mind how he’s going to put things right with his boss. But everyone else on the reunion committee tells him that yes, Oliver’s coming — and sure enough, Dan’s plan works.
Much of the joy of “The D Train” lies in watching Black’s Dan try to extricate himself from a tar-ball of lies, and the harder he tries to solve his problems, the more new ones he creates. There’s not much to praise about “The D Train” technically, even as editor Terel Gibson manages the impressive feat of juggling reality and possible hallucinations in the film’s final act. The production design by Ethan Tobman also helps the film — Lawless’ apartment, for example, is exactly as awful as you would hope; the office where Dan works is also a perfect piece of Middle American design, the ’90s trapped in futility like amber.
At the same time, the snappy 97-minute running time never lags, and the fact that Dan and Oliver have a drunken round of sex isn’t presented as the stuff of panic-worthy homophobia but rather as the stuff of panic-worthy weakness: The concern Dan has, regardless, is that it’s an infidelity that could destroy his life. That, in fact, is a surprisingly legitimate concern: The model here isn’t a wacky Will Ferrell film, but more like the fiction of Cheever sped-up and given a modernist backhand, as the only thing wrong with Dan’s quiet life of suburban desperation is that he dared to make a little noise about it.
“The D-Train” also makes its points about the hypnotic light cast by even a small amount of glamor, and about how avidly we want to catch even its reflection. It’s there when Dan is enthralled by Oliver’s stupid sunscreen ad; it’s there when Oliver tries to convince Dan he knows Dermot Mulroney (playing himself with deft charm) at a Hollywood club. It also makes it clear that everyone who reaches for that, to catch even a small part of it, is grasping for, at best, a poisoned chalice.
There’ve been films that have found comedy and satire in the high school reunion, from “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” to “Grosse Point Blank” and many more. “The D Train” succeeds because it isn’t just a reunion; it’s reaching out to improve an unchangeable past and to set a course for an unknown future, like Gatsby entranced by the green light on the dock, if Gatsby were Jack Black and the green light was a DJ playing Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart.” With superb, nuanced comedy performances from both White and Marsden, “The D Train” is a great, out-of-left-field star vehicle with tough laughs and real regret in it.