Sundance: Jack Black Makes a Comedy Comeback in 'The D Train'

Jordan Zakarin
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Jack Black needs to make more movies like The D Train, the semi-dark, semi-sweet comedy that’s making its debut at this week’s Sundance Film Festival.

Few performers have had as inconsistent a career as the 45-year-old actor, who’s spent the last two decades trading off between huge hits and even bigger bombs. After a run of M.V.P. comic-relief performances in films like year’s High Fidelity, Hollywood tried to make him a leading man, with yo-yo-like results: Early attempts like Orange County and Shallow Hal were met with mixed results, and while the resounding success of School of Rock brought him back from the brink, he partially squandered his newfound cred on misfires like Gulliver’s Travels and Year One.

The D Train —which sold for $3 million earlier this week — follows the rough but reliable formula found in all of Black’s better films: The more freedom he gets to explore the darker sides of his characters, the better (and more successful) the final product. Though he’s a gifted physical comedian, and can deliver entire jokes by simply lifting his eyebrows, the best movies of Black’s career have tended to be small and somewhat dramatic character studies of losers and underdogs who just want some respect. Let’s go through the roster: He was a failed rocker and desperate liar in School of Rock, a dopey loser in Be Kind Rewind, and a closeted mortician and murderer in Bernie. In all of them, he’s the sad-sack with a heart of gold, a guy whose wild antics are always fueled by an intense, pathetic desire to fit in.

That’s the basic premise for The D Train, which marks Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s debut as writer-directors. Black stars as Dan Landsman, a former high-school loser still searching for redemption. Though he’s got a wife (played by Kathryn Hahn) and two kids, Dan hasn’t stopped feeling pathetic: He works at a tiny, technology-averse consulting firm (run by Jeffrey Tambor) and is still being shunned by his former classmates, even as he works with some of them to plan the class’s 20th reunion. Most of those classmates don’t even remember his name (and the only one who does asks him if he “still sucks.”)

Hope arrives in the form of a late-night commercial for Banana Boat sunscreen, which happens to star Oliver Lawless, a former classmate, played by James Marsden. It’s a corny spot, but to the sad guy watching TV alone in his suburban-Pittsburgh den, it might as well be an Oscar-winning performance.

Oliver was the coolest kid in school, and Dan realizes that if he can get him to come to the reunion, it’d finally make him a hero. So he lures his super-cool classmate to make a trip home, resulting in a co-dependent bromance for the ages; Oliver is a financially strapped failure of an actor with a coke problem and confidence issues, so he’s more than willing to indulge the fawning loser from back home.

What follows is a series of escalating disasters and humiliations — not to mention a much talked-about sex scene — which send Dan to the edge, and cause far more embarrassment than he could have ever imagined in his high-school days. Black makes Dan’s lies and petty jealousies relatable, which becomes an increasingly impressive feat as they pile up and ensnare the lives of his family and friends. Watching the film, you just want to take the guy out for a beer and occupy his mind until the whole mess subsides.

Forget the big franchises and broad comedies. Movies like The D Train are the smart, semi-dark projects that give Black the space to create actual flawed human characters. That’s why, of all the movies on Black’s forthcoming filmography, the most promising is not the Goosebumps movie, but the upcoming HBO geopolitical comedy series The Brink, where he’ll reportedly play a lowly foreign-service officer. That’s good news for Black: The more pathetic he gets, the more we love him.