Silver Screen: The Dilemma *1/2
The premise for The Dilemma is basic, but a good one: A man discovers that his best friend's wife of many years is cheating on him with a younger man, and he struggles with the question (and attendant implications) of spilling the beans or keeping the secret. This concept could be made into a drama or a comedy; a slow, brooding psychodrama; or a farcical comedy of errors-- that is to say, it could run the full spectrum of Woody Allen's film career.
But instead of making one of these movies, director Ron Howard seems to have attempted to make all of them and mash them all into one movie. The result is an agonizing, terrible movie that combines the awkward silence of failed jokes with the jaw-clenching quiet tension of a protracted and grim portrayal of a marital-meltdown weepie. The result is a beast that is neither comedy nor drama, an ungainly thing that undercuts its already failing attempts to address the emotional complexities of its conflict with broad, unfunny gags that feel like editing-room-floor scraps from the Farrelly brothers.
Our man with the dilemma in question is Ronny (Vince Vaughn), the sales-minded half of a two-partner small business that develops new automotive technologies. The other partner is his college friend Nick (Kevin James), the brains of the operation. They're on the cusp of successfully pitching a career-making project to a big car company when Ronny, on a trip to a botanical garden to scout out a place to propose to his own girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly), catches Nick's wife (Winona Ryder, increasingly villainous in her middle age) cougar-clawing a buff young dude.
Ronny's impulse is to tell Nick right away, but he soon begins to fear that Nick may resent him for breaking the bad news or, worse, flip out and be unable to complete their make-or-break new project. Further complicating matters, Nick's cheating wife threatens to reveal that she and Ronny slept together in college if he rats her out, and Ronny has his own past of secrecy as a reformed gambling addict.
On paper, there's a lot of interesting intersecting conflicts, and, given the clumsiness of the rest of the movie, Howard and screenwriter Alan Loeb (The Switch, Things We Lost in the Fire) do a surprisingly good job making the marital troubles between Nick and his wife more than just a one-sided plot device. But the execution is lacking on nearly every level.
The narrative is yanked forward by a series of flat comedy setpieces that mostly climax in too-broad, uninspired slapstick-- Ronny falls headlong into a bed of poison flowers, Ronnie attempts to scale a building to nab photos of Nick's wife in illicit action, Ronny gets into a wildly mismatched fight with Nick's romantic rival, a chiseled dimwit played nicely by Channing Tatum. Tatum's performance as the clueless but not unsympathetic boytoy is easily the funniest thing about the movie.
That's not to say that costar Kevin James isn't a funny enough guy-- he is, but here he's given almost nothing to do but play the sad-sack straight man. His likability is squandered for pity and pathos rather than punchlines, and his character's interesting rougher edges are never properly explored.
That leaves Vaughn to do all the heavy lifting, but, as seems to be increasingly the case of late, he comes off less an impishly charming smooth-talker than just a blabbering asshole. When he delivers the movie's would-be infamous speech about electric cars being gay, during a scene that landed the film in controversy when it was excerpted from the trailer, he really does come off like a homophobic frat boy delighted with his own dimestore crassness. Like so much else in The Dilemma, it's just not funny at all.
The only relief from the bad comedy are the often awkward and unpleasant dramatic sequences. Fighting and tension are inherent in a movie about troubled relationships, but without any kind of real insight or payoff, there's neither catharsis nor benefit for the psychic cost.
The less said about one-hundred percent superfluous character of the car-company rep, played with unsupported conviction by Queen Latifah, the better. Her character seems to serve no other function than to deliver a resupply of what Howard and Loeb must have thought was a critical shortage of crass banter, mostly as she talks about the "lady wood" she gets looking at Nick's sweet, sweet engine. Inexplicable as this is, it's just one more misfire in a movie that seems to be made entirely of them.