James Marsden and Jack Black’s Imbalanced Bromance Gets — Graphically — Physical in ‘The D Train’

Joey and Chandler were roommates for a long time — long enough for their cohabitation to seem matrimonial, and for Friends writers to make whole scenes reflect the archetypal dialogue of an old couple trying to make it work — only to send in a “no homo”-ex machina before anything became too ambiguous. George and Jerry were once mistaken for gay, but a repeated “not that there’s anything wrong with that” very firmly implied that one another’s bodies would not number among the many foods ballyhooed by the duo. And Frasier and Niles had that convenient “we’re brothers” thing preventing any funny business.

Such shows were so deft in the art of blurring the lines of homosocial and homosexual, then regressively forcing them into sharper clarity than ever, that they seemed to create a firm rampart through which audiences never expected the genital locus of the “bromance” to pass. The D Train, written and directed by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel, may not be the best film, but it’s a fascinating remedy to the “gay panic” humor that’s still propagated by neanderthal comedies like Get Hard. It also insinuatingly explores some of the stereotyped tropes in the physical dynamics of man-on-man sex.

Henceforth, spoilers abound.

The D Train follows Dan Landsman, who seems to be fearing, in a moment that can be reductively described as midlife crisis — but should maybe instead just be called an American crisis — that his life and impact on the world amount to very little. Here he is, an immobile individual, in the same place where he grew up, married to his high school classmate (Kathryn Hahn), with their children attending the same schools they once attended, potentially leading the same fruitless (but actually, moral of the story: fruitful!) lives. His physique is indicative of this: Landsman is played by Jack Black, who has made a career comedically embodying manchild-ish stagnancy. When he sees a commercial featuring none other than the most popular dude from his high school — Oliver Lawless — playing a lifeguard, he of course projects his own insecurities onto it and aggrandizes the commercial spot, assuming the 40-something actor (with one national commercial!) must lead a devastatingly glamorous life. (The characters’ last names are pretty key, on-the-nose reflections of how Dan dichotomizes the two of them.)

And thus, Dan concocts a plan (which becomes more and more elaborate the more lies he tells) to regain his sense of self-worth by showing up with Oliver to the high school reunion he’s in charge of organizing. He flies to LA to meet with Oliver for the sole purpose of bringing him to the reunion. His boss (Jeffrey Tambor) also happens to be along for the ride: he’s been convinced that the LA vacation is a means of landing a huge deal. Oliver isn’t aware of any of this until Dan shows up in LA and nonchalantly calls him for a drink. Oliver and Dan very quickly develop a bromance — with Oliver’s ego fluffed by Dan’s misconception of his life, and Dan’s ego fluffed by Oliver’s interest in his interest in his life. Oliver casually drops his sexual fluidity. They do coke together. Oliver pretends he knows Dermot Mulroney. They share some laughs. Then they fuck.

The whole storyline is wildly farfetched, and yet nothing comes as more of a surprise than the fuck. And for us, it’s but a wee, two-second flash of a fuck, preceded by some impassioned kissing, with Marsden ripping open Black’s shirt, sexualizing that famous gut with gusto. It’s at once the part of the movie that makes the most sense, emotionally — as the logical, tacit, and confusing result of so many bromantic desires — and also the most revolutionary. This is purely due to the fact that this moment has been avoided for decades in film and TV, with “comical” faces of repulsion and distancing gestures.

In this two-second flash, we see that it is Oliver penetrating the married Dan — or, if it better fulfills your fantasies, James Marsden penetrating Jack Black — doggy-style, with Black folded over the bed and Marsden pumping from behind. (The position is important.) Black grimaces, but not out of disgust so much as out of the very clear fact that he’s a straight married man who’s having butt stuff done to him — vehemently — for the first time, and that he isn’t not enjoying it. Dan is suddenly envious of anyone else that Oliver flirts with; and it just so happens that Oliver flirts with everyone.

In one of the best lines of the movie, Marsden tells a group of other alumni — who make fun of the downward-spiraling Dan — that he could have “fucked” any of them, too, but didn’t. He lights a cigarette and walks away. Again, instead of instilling fuck-fear in this group of suburban everymen, their classmates are left looking mildly regretful that such a fate will never befall them.

If another movie were to go as far as to have its male buddy protagonists have sex, the aftermath would have most likely been a, “Whoa, dude, what happened last ni— no, dude” scene that would take the rest of the film for them to get over. The most impressive thing about the movie is the relative ease with which it treats the fallout of the man-on-man sex. Because the fallout, mostly, isn’t about the sex having been man-on-man, but rather about it having been, simply, an affair, when Dan still loves his wife. And, as with most affairs, it was catalyzed by the desire for something different that the extramarital partner represents. That something different isn’t manhood, but rather the hilariously false notion that Oliver, through leather jackets and sunscreen commercials, has sought — and found — a meaningful life.

Dan doesn’t suddenly enter a binary-fueled sexual identity crisis, wondering if he’s gay or straight: rather, he just wonders about why he’s conflated wanting someone with wanting to be them. What’s so cool is that Oliver’s dick doesn’t press some button that magically propels Dan into a vertiginous volley between the two most widely understood sexual orientations. This isn’t an “Am I gay or am I straight?” movie.

This brings me to perceptions of the social connotations of “top” and “bottom,” and the idea (and, sometimes, fact) that gay sex is sometimes divided along the same deep-rooted, sexist, heteronormative binary that also represents vulnerability vs. power. The film speaks to all this, as well. Dan perceives himself to be the underdog, so much so that he’s blind to Oliver’s misery, and to the fact that Oliver’s life is even more stagnant than his own. The D Train suggestively questions the myth that sexual positions should somehow directly imitate life, for what we see here is a false imitation — an attempt at emulating the characters’ projections.

It’s noted in the film that, when they have sex, Oliver finishes and Dan does not. This happens early in their adult friendship, when Oliver is performing confidence that he doesn’t really have about notions of fame and cultural omnipresence that he also doesn’t truly embody, and Dan is very blatantly exuding insecurity. The very nature of the sex they have seems to imitate the false impressions of Oliver as omnipotent. His orgasm is a teleological victory that at the time means nothing to him — he often seeks such gratification among strangers. Dan, however, has a perplexing and ultimately enlightening experience, despite the fact that all he’s doing is holding still (on all fours). His experience — both in life and in this particular encounter — may not be one of ejaculatory fulfillment, or of impacting the world at large. But maybe, henceforth, he’ll get a similar grimacing pleasure from just being there, living it.