Ever since he started in the Texas-set Bernie, playing a sweet-natured gay murderer, I’ve had to take Jack Black a little more seriously as an actor. So if he does a boutique film — even a comedy with X-Man James Marsden (perhaps the most underrated actor to appear in a string of huge box-office hits) — you kinda-sorta have to check him out … even though Bernie felt like one of those one-in-a-lifetime roles.
In The D Train, Black plays Dan, another small-town schlub, but unusually obsessed with a heartthrob former classmate, Oliver Lawless (Marsden), whose national sunscreen commercial reminds Dan of the potential he once had. He sets out trying to convince Oliver (too-cool, bisexual, and not as successful as he seems) to return for their high school reunion, making Dan a hero … or will it? And how does he really feel about Oliver, anyway?
The D Train wasn’t written by Mike White, even though he appears in a small role, but it has a definitely Mike White vibe: Maudlin yet awkward, empowering but realistic. (White wrote Black’s School of Rock as well as Chuck & Buck, among other quirky films.) The D Train takes an unexpected turn at the starts of the second act that sets it apart from the typical yearning-for-more middle-aged comedy of which is it definitely a part. Is this a story about an awakening or something more?
Black’s performance isn’t quite at the level of Bernie — it would be difficult to be that specific and full of such pathos — but he’s good at the awkwardness, and Marsden makes for a suitable dreamy yet remote fantasy man. It’s an unlikely teaming for an anti-romantic comedy, but an effective one precisely for its unexpectedness.
Opens Friday in wide release.
Bravetown. If D Train paints the boring side of suburbia, Bravetown shows the dangerous side of the big city. Josh (Lucas Till) is a teenaged club DJ who’s hot (physically and musically) and full of himself … and in trouble as well. After a drug OD and a string of petty crimes gets him in trouble with the law, he’s forced into the custody of his absentee dad (Tom Everett Scott), in Middle of Nowhere, U.S.A. He’s a hip kid among the local dullards. Though of course it might not end up as bad as it first seems.
Bravetown is a difficult film to parse: It has the pulsating rhythms (early on) of a club-centric urban cautionary tale, but quickly becomes an intimate domestic drama with a warmth for the countryside of the Upper Midwest. The a kind of Footloose/Drumline hybrid. Each feels a bit exaggerated, but even so, the emotions resonate. Till is a handsome young man with an accessibility to his brooding, and Josh Duhamel is solid as his court-ordered counselor. It never hits the level of Ordinary People (what has?) but it works on its sincerity alone.
Open Friday at the AMC Mesquite.