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‘The D-Train’ to nowhere

“The D-Train” is a horror movie that’s under the impression it’s a comedy – a sentimental comic bromance to be specific. Don’t believe it. This is the most unpleasant movie I’ve sat through in many months.

In the interests of hard truth – and some compassionate reparations too – it’s crucial to admit that some people are scoring it a lot higher than that. One of the best performances yet by James Marsden accounts for some of that. So, no doubt, do the presences here of Kathryn Hahn and Jeffrey Tambor, two of the most likable actors now working in roles we can’t help but respond to in a big way.

In the film’s final 30 minutes, Marsden, Hahn and Tambor all matter. They save the film from becoming completely repugnant.

But they’re not the focus of the film. It’s about Jack Black playing Dan Landsman, an astoundingly superficial jackass who is a dedicated and hopelessly pretentious member of his high school alumni committee working desperately to get members of his graduating class back to celebrate their 20th class reunion.

It’s his theory that if they just get the former most popular guy in school – Oliver Lawless (Marsden) – back for the reunion, other classmates will fall in line just to see what became of Lawless.

The trouble with that? He’s a struggling actor whose only significant credit seems to be playing the hunky doofus in a current sunscreen commercial. He’s also a phony, booze-soaked coke-snorting stint in rehab waiting to happen. Ask him about the gender of his sexual preferences and he’ll say “I’m not into labels. I like ‘whatever.’ ”

It’s the nature of this remarkably thoughtless movie that seldom has bisexuality been so slandered. So, too, with “whatever” as an answer to any question whatsoever about any preference at all.

It didn’t have to be that way. This movie was very significantly – and cleverly – called “Lawless” once. There are indications, then, that its central figure was Marsden’s character, not Jack Black’s, as Dan.

They seem to have changed it. Bad move, that.

They probably had it right the first time. Oliver Lawless is almost interesting. It takes a mere half hour in this film, on the other hand, to conclude that Dan is a total jerk.

He’s the kind of guy who completely and callously takes his wife and boss for granted. They are not only the most decent people he knows but the only two who seem to care about him. He’s the kind of East Coast guy who travels to California and calls his wife at 4 a.m. EST, even though they have an infant daughter. He’s the kind of guy who says discouraging things about his teen son’s burgeoning interest in an older girl; the kind who insists that his old classmates from two decades ago call him by nicknames he never had – “The D-Man” or “D-Fresh.”

He is the answer to that eternal question “just how much of a jerk can a guy be?”

When he comes home from a reunion committee meeting, his wife knowingly asks “did they invite you for drinks” afterward? “No” is his answer.

Dan is living a small and unpopular life where he hungers for the popularity and significance he’s sure will come from landing Oliver, the school’s one-time most popular guy, for their 20th reunion. He will, at long last be popular. And matter.

Let’s all be brutally honest: all of us want the good opinions of others, especially those who knew us way back when. High school class reunions are notorious for their revelations of things like character, compassion and worldly status.

All of us, no doubt, know what is to lack an occasional bit of grace too in our search for others’ esteem.

I submit that few can be as totally lacking in grace or personal interest as Dan. He quickly becomes unwatchable, which makes for a problem for viewers. Please understand: I am a huge Jack Black fan. What lover of “School of Rock” isn’t? Or what fan of Tenacious D? Underline our affection even more if you admire his late father-in-law, great jazz bassist, leader and composer Charlie Haden (Not to mention his sister-in-law, wildly creative singer Petra Haden.)

But as written by the film’s directors, “The D-Train” seems to be under the impression that our wellsprings of affection for Black will stop us from wanting to part company with him forever 30 minutes into the movie. But, as I said, that’s where Marsden, Tambor, Hahn and the roles they play come in. They give it what humanity it has.

If, in fact, they’d made Oliver Lawless the center, you’d have had a story of the geometrically regressing low standards for celebrity in the world. That could have been a savage and smart and interesting movie – called “Lawless” perhaps.

Put “D-Man” and “D-Fresh” in the middle and we learn, in the film’s final line, that no matter what happens to him, he’s learned nothing except, for a few minutes, how not to sound like the fool he still is. This is a guy who starts off as Mr. Hyde and stays there.

Up to you whether you want to follow his life around for 90 minutes.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

The D-Train

1.5 stars

Starring: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor

Directors: Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul

Running time: 97 minutes

Rating: R for sex of several varieties, nudity, language and drugs.

The Lowdown: An alumni reunion committee member obsesses over getting his class’ most popular member – now an actor– back for their 20th reunion.

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