“The D Train,” from the writing-directing team of Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul (“Yes Man”), is a modestly funny, little bit dark, occasionally knowing, not entirely cynical comedy that, to the extent that it succeeds at all, does so thanks to James Marsden.
The impossibly handsome actor has been consistently underrated for most of his career, especially in 2007, when he nailed back-to-back comic performances in “Hairspray” and “Enchanted.” Here, he plays a smug, literally too-cool-for-school Los Angeles actor in a turn that’s both amusing and, when he takes his aviators off long enough, more than a little sad.
Marsden’s character, Oliver Lawless, is the studly immovable object to Jack Black’s puppyish irresistible force in “The D Train,” in which Black plays Dan Landsman, an insufferable nerd who is in charge of organizing their 20-year high school reunion in Pittsburgh. When Dan spots Oliver in a Banana Boat commercial, he realizes that the actor is the closest thing to a celebrity their class has produced. He decides to travel to California to woo his erstwhile classmate, thereby guaranteeing the rockin’-est reunion ever.
There’s wooing in them thar hills, just not exactly what Dan had in mind — especially when his boss, a technologically clueless sweetheart played by Jeffrey Tambor, tags along. Black plays Dan with his signature brio and up-to-the-minute verbal flourishes, and there are times when “The D Train” — like “Superbad” before it — gets to the heart of some unspoken truths about male friendship, from the mutually reinforcing, almost pathological need for approval to the faint but steady drumbeat of homoerotic desire. (If you squint hard enough, you can see a Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy in here somewhere.)
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When Mogel and Paul are engaging the latter, they gratifyingly avoid tired gay-panic jokes. Then again, there’s all kinds of yuckiness in Oliver’s attempt to give Dan’s 14-year-old son advice on choreographing a three-way, while slurping a bowl of cereal.
To his credit, Marsden delivers even that sketchy material with scruffy, cluelessly self-involved conviction. His burlesque on actorly narcissism is honest, funny and brilliantly, even bravely aware, all the more impressive in that he plays such a supremely unaware character.
“The D Train” is far from perfect — up to and including the waste of Kathryn Hahn in a lifeless, stereotypical role as Dan’s wife — but it has its moments. And most of them belong to Marsden.
‘THE D TRAIN’
Rated R | Time: 1:37