Movie Review: ‘The D Train’

“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.

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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.) When Mogel and Paul are engaging in 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 yet.

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.

★ ★

R. Contains profanity, brief nudity, sexual situations, smoking and drug use. 97 minutes.

Book Review: ‘Memory Man’

It may be useful to think of David Baldacci’s “Memory Man” as a master class in the art of the bestseller. Starting with “Absolute Power” in 1996, Baldacci has in less than 20 years published an amazing 30 novels, almost all of them bestsellers. That’s not to say his thrillers are all equally pleasing. I read “Hour Game” in 2004 and thought it so bizarre that I swore off his work until this one came along. Happily, “Memory Man,” although strange in some ways, is both interesting and highly entertaining. It’s big, bold and almost impossible to put down.

There are several routes to the top of the list. Some bestselling authors — Michael Connelly, say, or Richard Price — write realistic novels and write them so well that they attract a large audience. Others lure readers with plots and characters that are implausible, sometimes wildly so, but also fun. The Baldacci books I’ve read have tended that way — toward the fanciful, sometimes seriously over the top. I gave up on “Hour Game” when, during a climactic shootout, Baldacci gravely informed us, “Beating odds of probably a billion to one, the two bullets had collided.” We all have our limits.

“Memory Man” has its improbable moments, but all in all the author’s fertile imagination makes it a winner. His new hero, the Memory Man of the title, is Amos Decker, a detective in a small town in the Midwest who comes home one night to find his wife and 9-year-old daughter slaughtered. Overcome by grief and rage, he almost kills himself but decides instead to live for revenge.

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We rejoin Decker 16 months later. The murders remain unsolved. He has quit the police force, lost his home and car and been homeless for a time, but now he’s working as a private investigator and living in a motel. One day the police tell him that a man has confessed to the murders. The confession proves illusory.

Then a masked intruder kills eight students and teachers at the local high school, the one that Decker, 42, attended. The police invite Decker to join the investigation. There’s evidence that the murder of his family and the rampage at the school are connected. The killer starts leaving messages that taunt Decker and make clear his or her hatred of the detective.

What follows is both convoluted and captivating. We learn that Decker is one of the most unusual detectives any novelist has dreamed up. After playing football in college, he tried out for a professional team — only to be blindsided in his first game by a vicious hit to his head. He fell to the ground unconscious and for a time was legally dead. When he recovered, his brain had been rewired. Tests revealed that he had become, in clinical terms, “an acquired savant with hyperthymesia and synesthesia abilities.” His injury gave him “one of the most exceptional brains in the world.”

Decker now has total recall. Anything he has ever seen or read, at any point in his life, he can remember. His analytic powers far exceed those of most mortals. It’s also true that he is no longer concerned with other people’s feelings or with love or kindness. He’s a brilliant machine who returns to his home town and joins the police force. He is a superhero detective, and much of the fascination of “Memory Man” comes from his being pitted against an enemy who is his intellectual equal and hellbent on Decker’s destruction.

Probable? No. Fun? You bet.

I called this novel a master class on the bestseller because of its fast-moving narrative, the originality of its hero and its irresistible plot. Yet the author lures us in other ways as well. Often I thought myself a few steps ahead of Decker in puzzling out who the villain might be. I wasn’t, of course, and that made me wonder if it might be the mark of a really smart novelist to let readers sometimes think we’re smarter than we are. Also, Baldacci has a disconcerting habit of describing characters — not all of them villains — as alarmingly unattractive, with bad teeth, bad skin, deformed limbs and more. Why? I haven’t a clue, unless he has divined that some book buyers enjoy reading about people less attractive than themselves. All’s fair in this game.

Decker still mourns his wife and remains chaste in this story, but Baldacci introduces an attractive young reporter who enlists in the troubled detective’s search for the killer. This may hint at a romance in Decker’s next adventure, one that could only make this hugely commercial saga even more so.

~~  Patrick Anderson ~~


By David Baldacci

Grand Central. 405 pp. $28

Box Office Top 20: ‘Avengers’ sequel ices ‘Hot Pursuit’

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LOS ANGELES, CA — “Hot Pursuit” came out of the gates cold in its first weekend in theaters, earning only $13.9 million and a distant second place spot on the charts, according to final numbers Monday. The Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara buddy comedy was very poorly received by critics, which may have contributed to its lower-than-expected performance.

Claiming the top spot for the second weekend in a row was Marvel and Disney’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.“ The super sequel earned $77.7 million in its second weekend in release, bringing its domestic total to a mighty $313.4 million.

But it might be “Ultron’s” last weekend at No. 1, as both “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Pitch Perfect 2” open this week.

The top 20 movies at U.S. and Canadian theaters Friday through Sunday, followed by distribution studio, gross, number of theater locations, average receipts per location, total gross and number of weeks in release, as compiled Monday by Rentrak:

1. “Avengers: Age Of Ultron,“ Disney, $77,746,929, 4,276 locations, $18,182 average, $313,402,397, 2 weeks.

2. “Hot Pursuit,“ Warner Bros., $13,942,258, 3,003 locations, $4,643 average, $13,942,258, 1 week.

3. “The Age Of Adaline,“ Lionsgate, $5,821,894, 3,070 locations, $1,896 average, $31,750,987, 3 weeks.

4. “Furious 7,“ Universal, $5,407,200, 3,004 locations, $1,800 average, $338,555,135, 6 weeks.

5. “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2,“ Sony, $5,306,041, 3,201 locations, $1,658 average, $58,190,912, 4 weeks.

6. “Ex Machina,“ A24 Films, $3,510,224, 2,004 locations, $1,752 average, $15,762,012, 5 weeks.

7. “Home,“ 20th Century Fox, $3,070,015, 2,495 locations, $1,230 average, $162,185,957, 7 weeks.

8. “Woman In Gold,“ The Weinstein Company, $1,740,066, 1,080 locations, $1,611 average, $27,065,702, 6 weeks.

9. “Cinderella,“ Disney, $1,681,560, 1,034 locations, $1,626 average, $196,273,979, 9 weeks.

10. “Unfriended,“ Universal, $1,454,355, 1,701 locations, $855 average, $30,985,315, 4 weeks.

11. “The Longest Ride,“ 20th Century Fox, $1,356,687, 1,464 locations, $927 average, $35,266,785, 5 weeks.

12. “Monkey Kingdom,“ Disney, $1,252,800, 1,431 locations, $875 average, $14,363,633, 4 weeks.

13. “Get Hard,“ Warner Bros., $1,057,382, 955 locations, $1,107 average, $87,831,115, 7 weeks.

14. “Piku,“ Yash Raj Films, $938,938, 117 locations, $8,025 average, $938,938, 1 week.

15. “Far From The Madding Crowd,“ Fox Searchlight, $776,368, 99 locations, $7,842 average, $1,016,528, 2 weeks.

16. “The Divergent Series: Insurgent,“ Lionsgate, $775,197, 843 locations, $920 average, $127,623,244, 8 weeks.

17. “Little Boy,“ Open Road, $691,483, 775 locations, $892 average, $5,330,380, 3 weeks.

18. “The Water Diviner,“ Warner Bros., $551,306, 385 locations, $1,432 average, $3,225,906, 3 weeks.

19. “The D Train,“ IFC Films, $447,524, 1,009 locations, $444 average, $447,524, 1 week.

20. “While We’re Young,“ A24 Films, $299,556, 258 locations, $1,161 average, $6,909,277, 7 weeks.

Movie Review: ‘5 Flights Up’

“5 Flights Up” is littered with red flags. There’s the voice-over narration by Morgan Freeman, offering commentary so obvious that it should have been left unsaid; there’s Diane Keaton playing the same scatterbrained character she always plays; there are New York stereotypes, including the jerky banker guy and the high-strung real estate lady; and there’s a strange and dreamy soft focus that adds the patina of a Lifetime movie.

And yet, despite its drawbacks, the drama, based on the novel “Heroic Measures” by Jill Ciment, sneaks up on you. It weasels its way into your heart and ultimately claims sweet, sentimental victory over your better judgment.

Keaton plays Ruth, a retired teacher who is married to Freeman’s Alex, a painter. Forty years ago, they moved into their two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, long before the hipsters descended. But considering the arduous climb to their fifth-floor walk-up, they’re thinking about selling in favor of a building with an elevator. So they put their place on the market — just to test the waters — with the help of their pushy, power-suited niece (Cynthia Nixon), who is sure she can get them $1 million for it.

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Nothing, however, could prepare them for the indignities of an open house. Househunters flock by the dozen to cast judgment on every last crown molding, referring to the paintings in Alex’s studio variously as “stuff,” “clutter” and “crap.” “Everyone’s a critic,” he grumbles during one of the script’s low points, when a well-timed facial expression could have done the trick.

But Ruth and Alex are distracted from this major life change by a couple of other events. For one, their terrier, Dorothy, is sick, stuck in a crate at a veterinary hospital with a 60 percent chance of survival. Ruth, in particular, is beside herself. Meanwhile, a man abandons an 18-wheeler on the Brooklyn Bridge, leaving all of New York to worry that the truck is filled with explosives, even though there’s no evidence to suggest so. Knee-jerk hysteria is the city-wide reaction as a manhunt unfolds to find the missing driver.

At first these little detours feel curiously inserted into the narrative, but ultimately they lend an authenticity to the movie, which unfolds at a nicely meandering pace over the course of a couple of days. Amid Keaton’s manic gesturing, life happens: Ruth reads in bed and Alex takes his pills; the pair goes to dinner down the street with a couple of old friends; and they struggle with so much newfangled technology. The small moments really add up to something: a charming portrait of two people who don’t always see eye to eye but who are undeniably on the same team.

They’re a united front against their crazed niece and all the young’uns who treat them like rubes. In a series of flashbacks — yet another problematic method that works against logic — we see that they’ve always been that way. Ruth’s parents didn’t approve of their daughter marrying a black man, but she did it anyway. And when Ruth couldn’t get pregnant, it was Alex who assured her that the two of them were family enough.

It was also Alex who gave Dorothy to Ruth. And when he — a man of modest means despite his high-value real estate holdings — tells the vet that money is no object and to do whatever it takes to save their baby, Ruth is overcome. She looks like she’s falling in love all over again. At that point, there’s no point trying to resist the sweetness of it all. “5 Flights Up” is far from perfect, but it’s also undeniably touching.

★ ★ ½

PG-13. Contains strong language and depictions of nudity in artwork. 92 minutes.

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