The Sexual Confusion Express

Hilary Bronwyn GayleThe D Train, a new comedy about sexual identity and male bonding that is now playing at the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas in downtown New Haven, uses a familiar genre to make a familiar point, but in a very unfamiliar way. Although the movie ends up with views of marriage, family, and friendship that are far from subversive, it gets there through an admirably — and sometimes hilariously — thorough commitment to its version of the bromance: that ambiguously sexual relationship between two straight dudes that drives most of the comedy and affection in everything from The 40-Year Old Virgin to 21 Jump Street.

First-time directors Andrew Mogul and Jarrad Paul manage to bring to life the sexual relationship between their two male leads while at the same time tempering their sexual identities, leaving the odd impression of a movie that is conventional, surprising, clunky, and exciting all at once.

Dan Landsman (Jack Black), a consultant with a wife and two kids, has been living in the same suburb of Pittsburgh for his entire life. Self-appointed chair of his high school reunion committee — though he is often reminded by his peers that the committee has no chair — Dan has so tightly wound his enthusiasm, ego, and insecurities about himself that he can hardly recognize how much his peers dislike him. Though the character is sometimes shallowly written, Black plays Dan with persistence and a straight face, rounding the edges of some of his most annoying characteristics but also imbuing him with a frightening potential to cause some real harm.

Hours into a solitary night of channel-flipping, Dan catches a sunscreen commercial starring none other than Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the former coolest kid in high school and now, to Dan’s wonderstruck eyes, a successful Hollywood actor. Dan tricks his boss (a befuddled and wonderfully unsuspecting Jeffrey Tambor) into paying for a flight out to LA so that Dan can convince Oliver to come to the reunion, where his celebrity will certainly bring out the rest of his graduating class, thus confirming Dan’s authority, value, and cool-kid credentials for all to see.

It is out in LA that Dan’s bromance with Oliver receives its inciting spark. Mogul and Paul build up to the movie’s defining moment in a wonderfully plausible way. There is no sudden change in Dan’s sycophantic but duplicitous reverence for Oliver: throughout the LA visit, he is trying to sneakily convince Oliver to return east for the reunion, all the while ingratiating himself at every twist and turn to whatever Oliver wants (or whatever Dan thinks he might want). When they finally end up at Oliver’s bungalow at the end of a raucous night, what happens is only a logical extension of Dan’s negotiating tactics. He’s willing to do anything for Oliver, anything to get him to the reunion, as well as anything to validate his own fragile ego and sense of self-worth.

The funniest and most insightful parts of this second half of the movie, however, have little to do with any kind of exploration of sexual identity. Instead, they come from the steady unraveling of lies that Dan has been telling himself and everyone around him for the entirety of the story. These little lies, whether about the true reason for a torn shirt or about the actual ease with which one can cc someone else on an email chain, start out as small, harmless, and irresistible, and quickly balloon out of control. The lies often mask a deeper concern and confusion underneath. When latched onto, they offer a gateway into dealing with more substantive concerns. But they can also function as a potential diversion, an excuse to argue and resolve issues at the surface level while letting what’s underneath remain festering, untouched.

By the end of the movie, however, every relationship thread and lingering lie seem to be tied up quite nicely. The bromance is resolved, and Dan can move on with his regular family-man life, a little wiser and a little more appreciative. These are familiar beats coming at the tail end of a pretty familiar narrative arc, but I appreciated them more coming from such an original angle.

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