Let’s just get the so-called spoiler out of the way: In The D Train, Oliver Lawless, a badass D-list actor played by James Marsden, fucks Dan Landsman, a small-town schmo played by Jack Black. The promotional material for this movie has avoided this element altogether, while many press reactions have dutifully treated it like a climactic, Crying Game-style jaw-dropper. The big moment is a tad startling, but it occurs around the beginning of act two, almost like a second inciting incident, and there’s really no way to fully unpack this film without laying it out on the table. Without the sex, The D Train is just another bromance. With it, it’s a groundbreaking inquiry for the post-bromance era, exploring the secret corners of male identity and relationships after a literal penetration that virtually every other film of its kind has only flirted with.
Moreover, The D Train uses its male-on-male boundary-leaping to give the shopworn man-boy narrative a refresh. Still living in his hometown of Pittsburgh with wife Stacy (Kathryn Hahn) and son Zach (Russell Posner), Dan is the self-appointed chairman of his high school’s alumni committee, which serves as both a perpetuation and a micro snapshot of his high school experience. Dan’s peers still don’t like him, and they still forget the nicknames he strains to assign himself, which only stokes his fiery, undying need to be accepted. With the high school’s 20-year reunion fast approaching, Dan and company are manning the phones to get former classmates to attend, and when Dan sees Oliver, a fellow alum, in a Banana Boat commercial, he sees his hot, chiseled ticket to being the hero who draws the crowd. He keeps his family up watching the video on repeat, and relays his rabid enthusiasm to the committee members, who are skeptical, yet sold.
Almost immediately, The D Train depicts the preposterous lengths to which people will go to win someone’s favor, romantically or otherwise, while that someone has no clue of the drastic inconveniences. Turns out Oliver, whom Dan calls, is free to meet for a drink, in L.A., so Dan concocts an entire phony business trip under the nose of his boss (Jeffrey Tambor), who’s conveniently computer illiterate. He also lies to his wife and son about what he’s doing, making the rendezvous feel like an affair long before anyone’s bumping uglies. Eventually, for Dan, the implication isn’t that he’s queer, per se, but that his need for validation is so complete that it blurs every facet of his actions and desires. For Oliver, an unfazed pansexual whose hedonism is self-medication for lack of success, his tryst with Dan is business as usual. But there’s a bond that’s formed between these two incomplete men, and in terms of what we’re used to seeing on screen, there’s a certain vital beauty to the human ambiguities filmmakers Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel present after using sex as a launch pad.
It’s also essential—and somewhat stunning—that there isn’t a hint of gay-shaming in this movie. At one point, Dan takes a wistful, morning-after shower, but the look on his face isn’t disgust; it’s a heightened version of his default, existential confusion. The fateful encounter with Oliver causes Dan’s life to unravel, yet it has nothing to do with his orientation. Or does it? In what might be the film’s finest scene (and in what’s arguably Black’s finest acting moment), Zach, to whom Dan has handed down insecurities like old clothes, asks his dad what’s wrong and Dan crumbles. He doesn’t know and neither does the viewer. Is he gay? Probably not. Should he leave his wife? Maybe. Has his perpetual void-filling hit a fever pitch? Without question. Still, the fact that Dan had sex with Oliver—and, more specifically, was on what society decrees is the less manly receiving end of that sex—isn’t depicted as rock bottom, but rather step one of a wake-up call. In this comedy, which still wedges sharp humor between the cracks of its novel drama, Dan tumbles into a unique and cryptic life overhaul in the wake of some drastic choices. But The D Train’s key takeaway is that sleeping with Oliver doesn’t make Dan less of a man—it helps make him a better one.