The Dilemma is a tense, uncomfortable drama about infidelity and the boundaries of friendship. The problem is, it’s supposed to be a comedy.
Best friends since college, Ronny (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Kevin James) own a scrappy engine design company together. Now they’re on the verge of hitting it big, based on a major deal with Dodge to make an electric vehicle that sounds and feels like an unrepentant sports car.
Their personal lives are also pretty damn good: Nick has a feisty wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder), and Ronny’s girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly), is exceptionally attractive and loves him despite his glaring faults. Predictably reluctant to commit, Ronny’s finally going to pop the question. But… as he’s scouting out a perfect site to do so, Ronny sees Geneva making out with another man (Channing Tatum). How is he going to tell Nick that his wife is cheating on him?
So far, it’s just another Hollywood comedy, headed toward misunderstandings, slapstick, and broad gags. Instead, the movie gets enmeshed in the moral quandary at the core of Alan Loeb’s script, as Ronny can’t manage to do the right thing and the movie can’t manage to be funny. Ron Howard’s direction lets the painful moments linger and completely botches the timing on the comedy.
You have to wonder if The Dilemma is just another step a Vince Vaughn master plan to visit his misanthropic view on the rest of us. His recent movie choices betray a deep contempt for the idea that people might live together in harmony. The Break-Up was an excruciating look at an imploding relationship. Four Christmases took a jaded view of families. Even the recent Couples Retreat started from a perspective that all marriages are basically mistakes. The insidious thing is that each was billed—and ultimately succeeded at the box office—as a comedy.
The Dilemma revisits these themes. Its premise, that a man who has finally decided to commit to marriage sees his model for a perfect relationship unraveling at the site of his imminent proposal, is a little perverse and potentially humorous. But what follows is only intermittently funny, more often an assortment of cheap jokes. Nick and Ronny’s handler at the car company (Queen Latifah) tosses off comments about “lady wood” and other raunchy sexual references that are meant to draw laughs solely because they are coming from a woman instead of a man. On the other end of the spectrum, Geneva’s tattooed and muscled lover starts to cry when Ronny insults him, even though, just moments before, he was beating his tormentor with a baseball bat.
In a more consistent comedy, or one that was more decidedly broad, such moments might have made more sense. But here they feel like outtakes from a different movie. Maybe The Dilemma should be commended, even with its shortcomings, for not being a stereotypical Hollywood comedy. After all, it avoids turning Geneva into a blameworthy harpy, instead opting to consider as well Nick’s contributions to their flawed marriage. And it complicates Ronny and Beth’s relationship, to an extent. But its apparent aspirations to expand the possibilities of the standard romantic comedy seem accidental rather than intentional.