A few years ago, I went to my local theater to catch a new movie more or less sight unseen. All I knew was that it was directed by Richard Linklater and that it starred Jack Black — in my mind, a pretty good combination. The film was Bernie, and it turned out to be one of the smartest and funniest films of 2012. It was also a long overdue reminder of how incredible Jack Black can be when given the right role.
Black hasn't been around much these past several years
Since then, Black’s appearances have been scant. His last major live-action films came a couple of years prior, with the critically panned Year One (2009) and Gulliver's Travels (2010). In the time since, Black has popped up here and there — voice work, web series, movie cameos — but for the most part, he's been off the radar. It’s a pretty dramatic change compared to the decade after he broke out in High Fidelity. During the 2000s, Black was always around somewhere, making cameos in big comedies like Anchorman and Walk Hard, landing a starring role in King Kong, and just generally doing his thing, even when that meant making a Tenacious D movie.
Black’s been away from the mainstream for a good four years, but he's about to come back in a big way. In October, he'll be playing R.L. Stine in the nostalgia-baiting Goosebumps film. Next month, he'll begin starring in the new HBO comedy series The Brink.
But his return begins with something a bit smaller: today’s release of the indie comedy The D Train. The D Train has Black playing a family man who risks his job and marriage in order to impress an actor who he went to high school with two decades earlier. Inevitably, he’s driven toward rock bottom as he becomes more and more desperate for people to think he's cool.
The D Train places Black in the type of role that he excels in. It's so easy to remember Black for his over-the-top performances — and he often does those well — but he's at his best as the dopey everyman, someone you're kind of rooting for even as he makes bad decisions.
There's a moment seconds into The D Train that's sort of the perfect example of how Black handles these roles. It's a subtle little bit of physicality — Black wagging his tongue to delicately lick the back of a suction cup. Most viewers will probably forget about it in an instant, but it's the exact entrance needed to convey how sadly dedicated this character is to the meaningless endeavors in his life — namely, getting a suction cup to stick to a pane of glass. At the same time, it demonstrates exactly what Black does so well: finding those ridiculous comedic notes in everyday actions. His characters are real (and really uncool), yet they're unintentionally funny in everything they do.
Black's characters are best when they aren't patently ridiculous
This formula should feel familiar to any fan of Black: School of Rock has him playing a substitute teacher who's desperate to be a rock star; Bernie has him playing a funeral home director who’s pushed to his breaking point by a mean widow. The humor falls back on him, and the same is basically true for The D Train. "Usually I play the lovable loser," Black said on Late Night with Seth Meyers earlier this week. "This time, a twist: hateable loser."
The film really works off of Black's performance as a loser, and I can imagine that it will play really well for a certain kind of masochistic audience, as they cringe at the misfortune his character brings upon himself. For me, it was a little too much like the social equivalent of a horror film — most of the time, I was just too uncomfortable to laugh. But just the fact that it was that viscerally effective says so much about what Black is able to bring to the role. Some events and interactions in this movie border on absurd, but they don't get there because Black's character never becomes a caricature — he's able to facilitate these wild interactions while still being the affable, hapless everyman.
His natural strength in these roles makes it all the more surprising that Black seems to be trying something different for his next act: HBO’s The Brink. The series is about three men in the middle of a political crisis, and it places Black in what — at first glance — appears to be far from his typical loser.
In just the first 15 seconds of The Brink’s debut teaser, Black's character spends most of his time punching down, making fun of outsiders, and generally acting surly and smug. Let’s be clear: I'm reading into the mere seconds of footage that we've seen from this show so far, but the humor doesn’t seem to land. Maybe that's because of the tired jokes (at the end of the teaser, one character essentially acknowledges this!), but it's also an odd position for Black. Sure, Black can be obnoxious, but he isn’t cool. He isn’t a winner. The Brink gives him the kind of jokes that you can imagine landing perfectly if they came out of Jack Donaghy's mouth in 30 Rock, but it all feels a little off coming from a guy who you kind of want to be pals with.
Mining the loser isn't such a bad idea
Putting Black in that position means missing out on what we enjoy most about his comedy. It’s easy to think now that we were crazy to fall for Black in the first place, especially when you look back over his films. How many great comedies did he actually star in? Surprisingly few. But I think the reason we’re still excited by Black is because, even in his worst roles, he brings along a sense of humanity. Maybe it’s good for Black to see where else his wild kicks and shrieks can succeed, but the "lovable loser" isn’t such a bad formula to keep turning back to. There are a whole lot of interesting losers out there.
It's not hard to see 2015 as a year of revival for Black. Five years ago, he flopped out of the box office pretty hard. The D Train likely isn't bound to bring Black a ton of fanfare, but it puts him on the right track. It turns out, it's pretty reasonable to have missed what Black can do at his best, when his wild comedy slips out through his most realistic performances. Here's hoping his next two projects let him do just that.