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'The Dilemma': Avoiding the Obvious... and the Humorous

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Friday, Jan 14, 2011
The Dilemma is the kind of movie that is so aggravating, that is so stupid in its set-up and narrative execution that it makes you want to throw things.
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The Dilemma

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Channing Tatum, Queen Latifah

(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 14 Jan 2011 (General release); UK theatrical: 14 Jan 2011 (General release); 2011)

It’s called a private investigator, a (typically) well paid professional who can use his or her well honed skills for covert surveillance to gather intelligence…and answers. It’s their job to solve problems like the one facing Vince Vaughn’s harried Ronny Valentine. Forget for a moment that he’s a 40 year old recovering gambling addict who can’t fully commit to his hot restaurateur gal pal Jennifer Connelly, or his position as part of a supposedly successful independent car design business. When he sees his best buddy’s (Kevin James) beloved wife (Winona Ryder) snogging on some tattooed punk (Channing Tatum), he literally loses his shit, instantly shifting from complex adult to absolute cretin. The rest of his dopey Dilemma centers on trying to prove his problem, one brain dead decision after another.


It’s your standard Hollywood hack-up, a bumbling bit of contrivance that relies on redolent cinematic cliches like lifelong friendship and faith to move things along when a single uncomfortable conversation (or the hiring of the aforementioned PI) would end everything. In the hands of a Gung Ho era Ron Howard, this middling excuse for a comedy—yeah, we are supposed to be laughing here - is not as awful as recent turns by the men in the leads. But for every Couples Retreat or Paul Blart: Mall Cop, for every trek through four terrible Christmases or gathering of grown-ups, this is still more EdTv than real entertainment.
  
The Dilemma is the kind of movie that is so aggravating, that is so stupid in its set-up and narrative execution that it makes you want to throw things. Instead of dealing with realistic individuals who have understandable issues and accompanying motives, we get movie chess pieces being batted about in the most improbable and insulting ways possible. We are supposed to believe that men capable of creating a meaty electric engine for an American muscle car, people possessing intense engineering intelligence and outsized business savvy, are so stunted that they can’t discuss adultery and/or past dalliances without coming to blows—or worse, forced motion picture slapstick. Even more disconcerting, the women in their lives are so vacant, so shallow and beyond reverent approach that they can’t be knocked down a peg by something as simple as the truth.


You see, Ronny’s complaints run deeper than his formerly obsessive need to know the spread of the local Chicago sports teams. His mincing man love for James’ Nick Backman is unfathomable, capable of countermanding a potential million dollar deal with GM. The minute he senses the marriage in jeopardy, his argued acumen atrophies, falling directly into the contrivances of a bumbling buddy farce. Yet Howard has obviously forgotten how to stage his jokes, allowing Vaughn to ramble on like a outpatient in desperate need of his meds. Witless lines linger like the stale stench of last night’s boiled dinner, proposed punchlines landing with an unceremonious wet splat. Instead of something anarchic or hyper-stylized, Howard mimics a Midwestern Woody Allen—the latter, horribly unfunny Allen.


The results remind us that the best intentions and a capable cast can’t salvage the moronic. Connelly carries an Oscar with her, Ms. Ryder a past riddled with nominations and equal recognition. Even Vaughn vaults above his costar, having proven his malleable mainstream chops. But it’s James who is out of place, even out-acted by that human growth whore-moan Tatum. The rotund comic can’t seem to channel anything other than discomfort, his size having little to do with the constant constipated look on his face. Riffs on ulcers and high stress deadlines add little, and when finally faced with the truth of his own indiscretions and issues, he has no other response than physical violence. Sure, the sitcom storytelling mandates it, but real life isn’t so high tension.


And this is perhaps the biggest problem with The Dilemma. Most comedies carefully balance the truth of human existence with a telling tweaking of same. Sometimes, the modifications are mortifying and geared toward the gross. In other instances, we laugh because he recognize the authenticity within the outrage. Here, no one acts wisely. Connelly can’t trust Vaughn because of his addictive past. Yet in more than two years, he’s never given her a reason to be concerned. Similarly, James slinks off to sleazy massage parlors for his mid-life crisis fix. Yet he struggles to understand how this might make his wife feel unwanted. Of all the characters, Ryder’s is the most concrete. She wants the attention of a man and will risk whatever to experience that yearning. She’s not locked into some knotty narrative business deal or dealing with a tangential character flaw.


Of course, The Dilemma is blind to all of this. It thinks it’s being uproarious and irreverent when it’s actually testing your patience. You can see it in a trio of so-called “set-pieces”, moments when the movie believes it is bringing the classic comedy noise. The first is already well known, the use of a specific disparaging remark already a PC-battled beatdown (FYI—the hubbub was and is unwarranted). The next features Vaughn in a tired anniversary toast that meanders on pointlessly. The last, and far more dispirit, is an “intervention” staged on the behalf of a supposedly relapsed Ronny. While the therapist spews touchy feely foolishness, the rest of the cast flail around aimlessly, hoping to milk enough giggles out of the moment before delivering the devastating denouement to all involved. Yet all the viewer experiences is a dead air gasping from such an ever-present witless vacuum. 


Look—James aside—everyone is likable here and Howard can put together a quasi-competent film without having to resort to ridiculous narrative non-sequitors, but The Dilemma is too dumb to dig its head out of its own cinematic shorts. It plays like a well done studio pitch that then had to put up or shut up—and more or less failed to do either. While audiences uninterested in the nuances of the genre will probably snicker a time or two, the discerning lover of all things funny bone will cop to how crappy this film is. Maybe the next time out, a problem so easily solved shouldn’t be the basis for a two hour laugher. Indeed, one private dick later this Dilemma would be instantly over. 


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The inherent value of these films goes beyond the basics of a Ron Howard resume. This is escapism at its silly, '70s best.
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The Dilemma is a tense, uncomfortable drama about infidelity and the boundaries of friendship. The problem is, it’s supposed to be a comedy.
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