Theatrical Review: THE DILEMMA

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
January 13th, 2011

Rating: 2/5

Writer: Allan Loeb
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Winona Ryder, Jennifer Connelly, Channing Tatum, Queen Latifah
Studio: Universal Pictures

Unlike other recent comedic fare that left me cold, THE DILEMMA doesn’t suffer from the multitude of sins that sink other films of its genre. It’s not dirty like LITTLE FOCKERS (though there are jokes about urination) or mean like DUE DATE (though there is that protracted scene of Vaughn deeming various things “gay”). THE DILEMMA'S worst sin is a simple one – it’s just not funny. Which is, oddly enough, not entirely a bad thing. Though its marketing has played up the assumed humor of the film, THE DILEMMA’s plotline and themes are much more serious than your average big studio comedy. But despite a chance to go deeper and darker, the film never decides what it wants to be – in an attempt to balance between humor and drama, the film never hits either tone on the nose, collapsing into something that becomes more and more ruthlessly disengaging as it winds on.

The film opens with our two lead couples having dinner together, where tabletop discussion turns deceptively heavy – is it possible to ever really know someone? Vince Vaughn’s Ronny Valentine and Kevin James’ Nick Brannen go way back, best friends since college and now partners in an auto-design firm. Nick’s wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder) is also from their college days, and Ronny’s girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly) has at least been around long enough to go through some serious stuff with Ronny and still come out with him on the other side. Ronny and Nick are developing a new electric engine – but this is one meant to be used in big muscle cars, Chargers and Challengers, beefy rides for tough dudes. Ronny and Nick’s spin on it? Make that electric engine roar like a real one, make it manly enough for muscleheads. We get it – THE DILEMMA is, at least vaguely, about the concept of “manning up.”

Through a series of bizarre coincidences (aren’t they always?), Ronny discovers Geneva in the throes of passion with another man, tattooed moron Zip (Channing Tatum). And thus, we have our dilemma. Does Ronny reveal to Nick what he’s seen and risk crushing his friend to the point that he’s unable to complete the engine they both so desperately need to succeed? Though the film does ultimately collapse into messy territory after mining the titular dilemma and its fallout for all its worth (and then some), it does at least start with a solid framework that adds to its situational believability. Ronny’s initial reasons for not telling Nick what’s going on are fleshed out and understandable – yet they get needlessly elaborated, especially when it comes to Winona Ryder’s Geneva, who first seems just slightly off before launching straight into genuinely unbalanced territory. Do you ever really know someone? Well, it’s hard to believe that in twenty years of knowing her, Nick and Ronny never grasped that Geneva is a sociopath. There are also a number of things in Ronny’s past that set up opportunities for both wacky misunderstandings and a bigger reason for everyone in Ronny’s life to doubt him.

Vince Vaughn initially plays the guy we all expect him to play – his Ronny Valentine is very much from the same mold as his Jeremy Grey from WEDDING CRASHERS, or his Beanie Campbell from OLD SCHOOL, even his Gary Grobowski from THE BREAK-UP. He’s a charming lug who has a touch of sweet talk that can almost always get him out from sticky situations, but THE DILEMMA sees him failing repeatedly. He just can’t get his legs under him, and Vaughn steadily builds Ronny, making him, at the very least, interesting to watch. Which is a good thing, because THE DILEMMA “stars” Vince Vaughn and just about no one else. Despite a long list of other “big names,” there is an air of general unimportance ascribed to the rest of the cast. The work of Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Queen Latifah, and Channing Tatum could have been done by any other actor or actress even remotely similar to them. While the entire co-starring cast has, at one time or another, turned in at least one memorable performance, it is as if Vaughn is acting amongst cardboard cut-outs of other actors just there for him to have something to talk at. Ronny is the only character even remotely developed as an actual person. He’s the only character worth watching and the only one that feels sympathetic.

THE DILEMMA could have manned up and gone for some real guts – jettisoning the standard issue humor (“gay” jokes, drugged out enemies, falls into poisonous plants, face-punching) to really tackle the meaning of friendship and the nature of love’s various betrayals. Like Ronny and Nick's eco-friendly electric engine that still sounds and moves like a gas-guzzler, THE DILEMMA wants to have the virtues and vigor of a serious exploration of love and character while still having the roar and rumble of raucous comedy. Is Ronny and Nick's engine ultimately a success? Does it really matter when their movie breaks down, sputtering and choking on the fumes of its own promise?

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