One of the production companies behind The D Train is England’s Ealing Studios, which produced such immortal comedies as Whisky Galore! (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). The company went dormant in the late 1950s but was resurrected about 15 years ago and has been producing movies ever since, albeit to relatively little fanfare on this side of the pond. The D Train harks back to the old Ealing style in its sensitivity to character and lower-middle-class disappointment; in fact, these qualities are so strong that they can overwhelm any sense of narrative development. For a vulgar American comedy, this is refreshingly low-key and generous. I admired its intentions without finding it all that funny.
As in numerous Ealing classics, the plot revolves around a poorly conceived scheme. Dan Landsman (Jack Black), a middle-aged insurance salesman in Pittsburgh, is still sore about having been unpopular in high school. Trying to win the respect of his old classmates, he devotes himself to the planning committee for his 20-year reunion. One night Dan recognizes Oliver (James Marsden), the coolest guy from his class, in a national TV ad. Convinced that Oliver’s presence at the reunion would guarantee an unforgettable party, Dan resolves to bring him to Pittsburgh and cons his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) into planning a business trip to LA so he can track down Oliver.
Black gives a sweet, understated performance as Dan, playing him as a gentle soul with misplaced energy. Though hardly successful in his career (his office is so behind the times that no one but he has a computer), Dan doesn’t take out his resentment on anyone else. In fact he’ll do anything he can to appease the people he works with, which becomes a tragic flaw when he finally locates Oliver in LA. (Spoilers follow.) The onetime cool kid has become a drug-addled reprobate who’ll fuck anything that moves, and Dan, hoping to win his trust, becomes his second banana on a debauched weekend that culminates with the two having sex.
Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, directing their own script, don’t make a big deal about these two hooking up, even though Dan is married with two kids. The sex comes off as a comic expression of what both characters want but can’t have—to be considered desirable by others. Oliver turns out to be a genuine loser, a pretty-boy actor past his prime who uses sex and drugs to fuel his self-delusion. Yet Marsden and the filmmakers still inspire sympathy for Oliver; his disappointment over not having achieved more turns out to be his most poignant quality. v