Bob Verini is the Los Angeles-based theater critic for Daily Variety, for whom he also contributes features on film, theater and television. Since 2000 he has been a senior writer for Script.
The D Train
For my generation, the Baby Boomers, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 The Big Chill was the ultimate statement on what we’d done and how we’d turned out. Other films (like Return of the Secaucus Seven and Running On Empty) trafficked in similar territory, but somehow that particular seriocomedy stood apart, encapsulating all the idealistic dreams we held in the 60s, and the compromises we made and failures we accrued in the decades that followed.
On our heels, as professional and amateur sociologists alike all know, came Generation-X or “the MTV Generation,” going through their paces on the movie screen in the likes of Clerks, Slackers, and of course the John Hughes oeuvre including Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. Yet already this generation has given way to the Millennials, so it’s fair to ask: Where’s the Gen-X Big Chill? Where’s the cinematic look-back at the latchkey kids of Watergate and AIDS, of Monica Lewinsky and Mother Teresa?
Co-writers and co-directors Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel have crafted a unique protagonist for Jack Black, in his best role since School of Rock as Dan Landsman – a classic John Hughes geeky loser seen a decade or more ahead. He’s the straining, unappreciated class clown who has never gotten over his adolescent inability to make a mark on his peers. “The obsession with being liked. with being cool, with fitting in – it all came from that,” Paul asserts.
Heading up the reunion committee, Dan suddenly hits on a plan to persuade Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), their year’s most popular BMOC and current star of a popular national TV commercial, to return from La-La Land for the big event. If Dan can buddy up with this Hollywood hotshot and show him off as his bro, surely all that cool will rub off on him?
Paul and Andrew Mogel – who made their first mark on the industry with their writing for the 2008 Jim Carrey hit Yes Man – back away from any acknowledgment that Dan was intended as some sort of symbolic representative of their (late 30s/early 40s) peer group. “I wish we were smart enough to make a statement on our generation,” Mogel jokes, and Paul adds, “We just liked the character, really.” Moreover, each strenuously denies the story is in any way based on his own high school years: “Didn’t really come from any real experiences. Sorry.”
Yet Mogel concedes, “…um, we weren’t the James Marsdens of our high school class,” and it’s clear they’ve both done some thinking on what Dan, and his Quixotic quest for late-inning popularity, represent.
“You have that feeling,” Mogel continues, “that years later, no matter what you’ve accomplished or what you do, you go back to these people [of your adolescence] and fall back into that same feeling… That was interesting to us: the need people feel to impress, and show everybody how great they’re doing. Our guy is willing to go to really great lengths, some really stupid decisions, to do that.”
Indeed, Dan’s mission escalates into a pack of lies that threaten to swamp him in the manner of a Preston Sturges social comedy. Paul reports, “We were talking a lot about Fargo, in which William H. Macy is so desperate and digging himself a deeper hole. And The Informant!, where Matt Damon keeps telling lie on top of lie on top of lie. We do love putting our guy through the wringer.”
Yet if The D Train never devolves into a slapstick bromance of the Adam Sandler variety – and it doesn’t – it’s mostly because of Dan’s very real (albeit daffy) human needs. They’re needs we can see all around us today: the obsession with celebrity, and reflected glory, that began in the 70s and since has conquered the globe in the current era of Facebook and selfies.
The desire to show off one’s coolness to others, too, can be seen as a distinctly Gen-X idea. “A lot of us let go of that high school mentality of what’s cool, but some people don’t,” says Mogel. “We were interested in Dan’s being trapped in that, and his journey to be released from that.”
Deftly, the filmmakers frame their protagonist not as a deranged loner – some sort of comical Travis Bickle, but as a family man and model citizen. To Mogel, “He’s a guy who’s never left his home town, maybe married early in life, got kids early in life, had to get a job right away, and now he’s wondering, ‘What if I didn’t do that?’”
Adds Paul, “We’ve all seen versions of that guy who has nothing, who’s desperate for something. To us it was interesting that on the surface, Dan has got what most people want. Why is he still searching? Where does that come from?”
Oliver Lawless is searching, too. Marsden’s exceptional characterization deepens the movie’s take on haunted dreamers. Dan was written with Jack Black in mind, but who was the model for the wannabe movie star?
Muses Paul, “He’s definitely like a James Dean or a Steve McQueen-y…” His voice trails off. Mogel adds, “Effortlessly cool.” Another pause, and then Paul finally says, “Basically, he’s every guy in L.A.”
We learn early on (in a delicious scene with Dermot Mulroney, playing himself in a restaurant), that Oliver is far from the showbiz luminary of his ambitions and of Dan’s feverish imagination. Says Paul, “Dan makes him feel like a king again. He hasn’t felt like ‘Oliver Lawless, The Guy From High School,’ in a long time.”
There’s a poignancy there. which leavens the characters’ meeting, and makes plausible the events that occur when – as you might guess – Oliver agrees to attend the reunion.
“There’s a scene in Dan’s hotel room,” Mogel explains,” where he comes clean about why he’s in L.A. and what he’s doing. That’s the moment where they pull the layers back and realize ‘we’re doing the same thing as each other.’ Both of them kind of put their shields down, and you see the similarities between them even though they feel so opposite.”
The definitive Big Chill for Gen-X still waits to be written (though I just saw a recent stab at it, an impressive little indie entitled Beside Still Waters). When it emerges, we can only hope it reflects the high emotional stakes and genuine humanity that infuse The D Train.
The D Train, an IFC Films release, opens nationally on May 8th.
- More articles and interviews by Bob Verini
- Comedy and the Kitchen Sink: The Art of Writing Comedy
- Secrets of Comedy Revealed
Writing the Comedy Feature Film