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[MOVIE REVIEWS]

School daze

The D Train, which marks the feature debut for the writing/directing duo of Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, initially appears a typical “arrested-adolescence” comedy before veering off into unexpected, even uncomfortable, but undeniably fresh, directions.

The film’s ads stress Jack Black (also a producer) and James Marsden in party mode, and that prerequisite is fulfilled. Black’s Dan Landsman is a member of 20th-anniversary high-school reunion committee, a position he takes with utmost seriousness – much to the collective exasperation of his fellow committee members (including producer Mike White).

When Dan chances across classmate Oliver Lawless (Marsden) on a TV commercial, he concocts a ruse (of the “hare-brained” sort) to convince Oliver – who was Mr. Popularity in high school – to attend, thereby fulfilling his own aspiration toward popularity.

Needless to say, Dan’s charade snowballs out of control, but as it does so the film develops a real kick – and a few kinks. There are some slow moments, and a few that seem unduly protracted, but Mogel and Paul are fortunate enough to have this cast. They put The D Train on the A-list.

This is the role Black plays so well – the self-deluded everyman whose rampant, even grating, energy masks insecurity and neuroses, and Marsden is hilarious as a boozy, bisexual, embittered Hollywood stud who nevertheless regains a bit of the old magic at the reunion.

There’s nice work too from Kathryn Hahn as Dan’s patient wife, Jeffrey Tambor as his patient boss and Russell Posner as his impatient son. Kudos as well to Dermot Mulroney, in a very funny cameo as actor Dermot Mulroney.

Hot Pursuit runs cold

In Hot Pursuit, Reese Witherspoon talks very fast, Sofia Vergara talks very loud, and very little of what they say is funny. This is a buddy movie, once a Hollywood staple that has fallen on hard times given such recent entries as The Heat (2013), Ride Along (2014) and this year’s Get Hard.

Directed in colorless fashion by Anne Fletcher from a screenplay credited (as it were) to David Feeney and John Quaitance, this is pure trifle that reworks Midnight Run (1988) – a great buddy movie – for modern audiences.

As it one were needed. Witherspoon, in uptight spunky mode, plays Cooper, a by-the-book San Antonio cop. Vergara, in spicy Latina mode, plays Daniella Riva, a mobster’s wife tapped to testify before a grand jury in Dallas. Thanks to corrupt cops and gun-toting goons, Cooper and Daniella are soon bopping deep in the heart of Texas, bickering and bantering all the way.

Witherspoon’s height and Vergara’s age are running gags, but the gags in Hot Pursuit don’t so much run as dribble and stumble. Witherspoon (also a producer) and Vergara (also an executive producer) are easy on the eyes, but these lovely ladies can’t breathe life into such flimsy material. Nor can John Carroll Lynch, Richard T. Jones, Jim Gaffigan and Mike Birbiglia, although Robert Kazinsky displays an easy charm as Randy, an ex-con and a potential love interest for Cooper, although it’s a role that demands nothing.

Funny business

Kevin Pollak’s documentary Misery Loves Comedy offers an insight into the comedic mindset as explored by an all-star line-up including Tom Hanks, Martin Short, Jimmy Fallon, Christopher Guest, William H. Macy, Judd Apatow, Amy Schumer, Larry David, Lewis Black, Steve Coogan and many others, all of whom have succeeded in the business of being funny – often by trying, failing, then trying again and again.

Comedy and humor spring from many sources, but as the title implies, misery is as powerful an inspiration to make people laugh as any. Himself a comedian, Pollak’s first-hand experience gives him common ground with those he interviews, so there’s an immediate rapport. They’re comfortable enough to share their collective assessment that making people laugh is not always a comfortable endeavor. (Macy, a first-rate comedic and dramatic actor, admits that the mere thought of doing stand-up comedy terrifies him.)

As the subjects relate various life experiences that turned their lives toward comedy, including the “Hey, look at me!” syndrome they all seem to have shared as youngsters, Misery Loves Comedy gives one a new appreciation for these talents, but in a smooth, easily-digestible fashion that avoids hagiography. Funny people are people, too. Their memories of bombing – some vividly recounted — induce as much cringing as chuckling, and offer further testament that comedy isn’t always a laughing matter.

Misery Loves Comedy opens Friday at Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema, Greensboro. !

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