A film review by Craig J. Koban January 18, 2011

THE DILEMMA j
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2011, PG-13, 105 mins.

 

Vince Vaughn: Ronny / Kevin James: Nick /Jennifer Connelly: Beth / Winona Ryder: Geneva / Channing Tatum: Zip / Queen Latifah: Susan

Directed by Ron Howard / Written by Allan Loeb

Considering that Ron Howard began his directorial career securely and confidently in comedies (NIGHT SHIFT, SPLASH, COCOON, PARENTHOOD, and GUNG HO) it’s somewhat surprising that his few recent attempts at returning to the genre that gave him a voice in Hollywood are mediocre at best.  THE DILEMMA is his first re-attempt at comedy since 1999’s fairly laughless and unmemorable EDtv and what’s unavoidably evident here is that Howard has lost his touch with this type of material.  It also regrettably reveals a filmmaker that – if you excuse FROST/NIXON, one of the Ten Best Films of 2008 – has made a succession of films that have ranged from middling (THE DA VINCI CODE) to abysmal (ANGELS AND DEMONS).   

There is nothing wrong in particular with Howard returning to his career roots, but the maker of CINDERELLA MAN and APOLLO 13 seems woefully overqualified to be tackling such a contrived, routine, and undistinguished mess that is THE DILEMMA.   It’s not so much that the film is awful, per se, but it’s more of a disappointing misfire for an esteemed filmmaker of Howard's pedigree.  Perhaps part of the problem is that Howard is directing an Allen Loeb (21, THE SWITCH, and WALL STREET 2) script that is riddled with sitcom worthy set-ups and reveals, a considerable amount of trifling laughs, and an ungodly mishmash of slapsticky shenanigans with a dark and sobering melodramatic undertones.  What results is a terribly uneven and off balanced film, one where you kind of question whether Howard or Loeb know intuitively what kind of movie they were making. 

It’s too bad, because there are some very talented comedic and dramatic performers in the piece and the central bromance in the story between Vince Vaughn and Kevin James works.  Aside from their obvious Laurel and Hardy physical facades (the massively tall Vaughn with the short and rotund James), the pair has very decent comic chemistry and timing with one another.  James is a performer that has an unassumingly shy, everyman schlep quality that makes him easily agreeable, which makes for an effective comic foil to Vaughn, who perhaps has no equal when it comes to playing tremendously confident, charismatic, hyperactively outgoing, and head-spinningly verbose motormouths that speak with such a speed and fluidity that you often laugh both at what he says and how he says it. 

Vaughn and James respectively play old college collegues turned business partners and lifelong BFFs Ronny Valentine and Nick Brannen who are staking large personal and financial risks with a major automobile project that could be their ticket to wealth and acclaim.  Whereas Nick is happily married to his long-time sweetheart, Geneva (Winona Ryder, who with this film and BLACK SWAN is vying for a comeback), Ronny is plagued with insecurities about whether he should propose to the love of his life, Beth (Jennifer Connelly).  Ronny seems convinced that marriage is a union that he holds dear and would like to peruse with Beth, but his attempts to propose are stymied by a dastardly discovery: he catches Geneva in an adulterous fling with a rugged, handsome, but dopey and easy-to-reduce-to-tears Zip (Channing Tatum, typically a very stiff and mannered actor, but here he arguably gives his most energetic and amusing performance). 

Okay…so here’s Ronny’s dilemma:  he could break the news to his buddy, but he knows that it would instantly deflate any sense of self-confidence and esteem he now clings to.  Furthermore, by telling him and, in turn, ruining his marriage, it would have disastrous side-effects on Nick’s abilities to get their car project off the ground (they are facing a crushing and tension filled deadline).  Ronny then decides to make a fairly strategic decision by confronting Geneva when she least expects it (in this case, at a Chicago Blackhawks game).  She pleads with Ronny to not tell Nick, which he promises to abide by, but only if Geneva breaks it up with Zip once and for all.  She agrees, but when Ronny finds out that she is still seeing the man, he confronts her yet again, but this time she has a fiendish plan of her own for turning the tables on him if he were to ever spill the beans to Nick.  Faced with almost insurmountable odds, Nick perseveres and begins a complex plan of outing Geneva…with even more complex and unintended results. 

THE DILEMMA is on solid ground on a performance level.   As stated, James is loveably humble and soft-spokenly funny as Nick and Vaughn is well…on pure Vince Vaughnian autopilot, but he plays these same types of roles so resoundingly well (the edgy, loquacious, overgrown manchild that is capable of being hostilely rude and overbearing while being soft, sentimental, and sincere) that you are willing to forgive him for playing these parts over and over again.  Of course, Vaughn is known for his lightning fast, improvisational wits, and Howard thankfully lets him loose: he has one wickedly hilarious line when he describes the GTO as a vehicle that has “taken more virginities than Francis Albert Sinatra."   Then there is the coup de grace of all moments in the film when Ronny takes it upon himself to toast Beth’s parents’ wedding anniversary, which involves diatribes about honesty as well as an explanation as to why it’s okay to have sex with a non-blood cousin because the baby would not turn out “weird.”  It’s moments like this that show Vaughn at his most incisive best; it’s too bad that the rest of the film did not have as much nerve. 

The female roles are, alas, more inconsistently realized.  I really loved seeing Ryder pull out all of the stops to play a role that traverses from being emotionally wounded, vulnerable, contemptible, deceitful, and downright bitchy…often within just one line of dialogue; she is having considerable fun here with the part of the duplicitous wife.  Jennifer Connolly, on the other hand, is not given much to really do here, other than to play the on-again-off-again supportive girlfriend that is forced to play in scenes where she shows love and affection for the problematic Ronny, but then must -  whenever the highly convenient and hackneyed script calls for it – confront him with past demons that never feel like genuine revelations.  There is a late-breaking bit of info regarding Ronny’s past that is shamefully introduced for the sake of creating artificial conflict in the final act.  And what was Queen Latifa's function in this whole enterprise, other than to play a wisecracking and dirty-minded auto executive that works with Ronny and Nick that spews out lame dialogue designed for cheap and tawdry laughs?  I mean...c'mon. 

More problems arise: the film is too long by perhaps 20-30 minutes and it takes an awfully long time for the story to go anywhere.  Then there is the aforementioned fact that Loeb’s script and Howard’s somewhat lifeless direction really are skitzo when it comes to hammering home a consistent tone: the film makes jarringly sharp detours into hysterics and contemplative drama to the point of eye strain.  And…seriously…did anyone really buy Ronny and Nick’s “ingenious” automobile concoction, which – as far as I can tell – would retrofit modern muscle cars with computer controlled electric engines that, in turn, would still make these cars roar and vibrate like their gas-guzzling forefathers.  Here’s why this idea would never, ever  fly: people who like testosterone appealing, ear-splittingly loud and fossil-fuel unfriendly cars buy them because simply because of those traits.  It’s like LPs: purists don’t want to buy CD’s that would be altered to sound like LPs…they just want the LPs.  Get it? 

Ronny and Nick try to provide an explanation as to why their car concept would fly during a presentation to some car company bigwigs; at one point Ronny deadpans that electric cars are “gay”, but “not homosexual gay, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”  This scene, shown in the film's trailers, was enough to get G.L.A.D. really pissed, which forced Howard and the studio to cut it from all future trailers.  It stayed in the film, and Howard’s defense of his choice is both suitable and ironic: “If storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong armed into making creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and a provoker of thought.” 

THE DILEMMA neither provokes much thought, nor is it compelling and funny as entertainment, nor is there much creative artistry on display.  Hmmmm...perhaps Howard and company could have benefited from more “strong-armed creative changes”?

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