Jack Black has been on a cinematic tear for a number of years now hitting the bull’s-eye effortlessly with so many characters that seem similar on the surface, but are threaded together much more by Black’s Gonzo humor and an ability to unleash his perfect calibration of pathos and raw energy into giving each new persona a nuance and an undiluted enthusiasm. His films bristle breathlessly with Black getting you excited about the seemingly dumbest possible situation or pettiest life crisis and focusing his controlled explosions on targets beautifully deserving of destruction.
The high school setting has often been the most psychologically poignant and awkward setting in the last few decades of film, particularly for comedies and dramedies, but Black has perfected an even more brutally painful anti-hero, the guy who never stops longing for some never-existed & never-found coolness and/or glory post-high school, as if there was really anything at all in high school over which it was worth getting wistful. This is the kind of guy whose adult confidence is laced with the void of past oblivions and who manages to let the pointless regrets over goddamn high school creep into midlife. Drunken parties, sexual conquests, and wild drug-addled road trips he wishes had happened become a longed-for quest in this character that Black chisels out in the D train as Dan Landsman from Pittsburgh, PA.
So we have Black’s Dan Landsman and his group of local graduates on the reunion committee to pull off what they envision as the party of their lives, lives that could somehow be transformed by one great party, a reckoning, an APOTHEOSIS, a redemption of who they were in high school, but now as their perceived wiser and cooler adult selves. This is how Dan Landsman sees it going down, along with the rest of the exploratory committee with the always-great actor/producer/writer Mike White playing Jerry, Dan’s buddy on the exploratory reunion committee.
Part of what this film is really looking at is why this kind of character keeps recurring and it’s mainly due to the continual crushing of souls chasing down the broken and bullshit American dream mythos, the carrot on the end of the stick, the feeling of Springsteen’s Born to Run long after even the karaoke machine stopped making it feel like that song still had any resonance or magic left in it.
These broken American clowns and others Jack Black mines for beauty and spirit detail the fusing of the “meta-“loser and the beautiful loser, and every other loser while in this realm… because nobody likes a winner anymore. Why? Because the rich and “successful”, the repulsive scions who inherited millions, the Southampton hedge fund billionaire crooks, doctors, lawyers, actors, and singers, ad infinitum have all been consistently and conclusively exposed as frauds, greedy, stingy, soulless, and rendered bereft of humanity, and far too spiritually ugly to be able to do anything about their condition or to do a U-turn and pull out of it. Even just to be generous with all of the ill-gotten gains. All those who for so long were symbolic of the American dream but were really just simply rich assholes and mostly had an unfair advantage of rich parents or some kind of plundered wealth that fell in their lap that they spun with the help of advertising and PR that ridiculous amounts of that leeched and stolen money can buy.
So we take shelter in the humanity of the losers and that’s what Jack Black renders in the D train as Dan Landsman. Black’s Landsman character is the antidote to the ugly winners and the repellent wealthy sociopaths who have willingly perpetuated all of the hollow promises and who created the starkly ambitious malignancy that is what the American Dream always was.
James Marsden plays Oliver Lawless, another portrait of a loser in the film, but a loser who was a winner in high school but didn’t quite turn out that way in the rest of his life, as happens. Oliver Lawless is one of the ones who, in the course of the film, is lucky enough to fall into the abyss and find the humanity of loss and perdition that most perpetual winners and the spoiled rich never find.
So the two losers, Oliver Lawless and Dan Landsman, collide and you get the idea, you’ve seen the dynamic… but beyond the lessons and the bittersweet resonance is the film’s taking part in the continually needed exposure of the cancer at the center of the American dream that The D Train is trying to show. Iconic heroes like Kerouac died from broken American dreaming, so did Ernest Hemingway, Jim Morrison, James Dean, and pretty much anyone and everyone in between who thought there was some prize or place where your personality could become godlike. It’s a long list of disaster. The narcissism of the extreme individualism built into our American culture, of becoming heroic and mythical, when all those desires really amounted to was people who were trying to prove something to someone, people trying to desperately show everyone their worth… and their insecurities were plainly laid bare, usually inadvertently and with the cover of a cool image – so we watched their public psychotherapy sessions and called it art or rock and roll or (the best one) “genius”.
The thing that’s left to do is to finish the job of demolishing the false mythology of the American Dream and then starting something better than the shallow pursuits of the brainwashing that’s been forced upon the entire planet. There’s real freedom in the brutal truth and liberating honesty that infuses Dan Landsman by the third act of the film. We all often run screaming and recoil from the harsh truths of full disclosure, in this case the disclosure that there’s nothing behind the curtain. American exceptionalism doesn’t exist and never existed. The losers in the D Train are only a microcosm of the fact that the entire American culture is built around the ugly “winners” who’ve turned out to be far worse people than the smalltime and smalltown losers like Dan Landsman and Oliver Lawless, two characters who both have liberating epiphanies about this huge layer of horseshit built into and all around American culture.
Jack Black is the perfect neo-Bukowskian anti-hero to reflect the rotted core of hypocritical American values and superficiality and empire-building because his humor and character portrayals represents the other side of the square culture that seems to have won the cultural wars at this point in human history, 2015 AD. Stripping away the crappy and demented lies from American Dream propaganda is a long task and it was begun quite a while ago. The mission has been followed by a few.
This film and Jack Black are part of that chipping away at the shallow materialism and blissful ignorance of decades of intense and relentless American brainwashing. And a mess of a high school reunion as the setting in this film is one way to have some subversive and deconstructive fun at the expense of the waning of an American era – and what the film seems to hope could be the beginning of a much more real and more honest era. There is something beyond and way better than winning.