Friday, January 14, 2011

The Dilemma: Lousy choice

The Dilemma (2011) • View trailer for The Dilemma
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for vulgar humor and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.14.11

Don’t be deceived.

Universal’s marketing campaign paints The Dilemma as a light-hearted, giggly farce that matches big-screen funnymen Vince Vaughn and Kevin James against an ethical “problem” supposedly ripe with comic possibilities.
"The Dilemma" turns on a loaded question: How well do we really know our
best friends? Ronny (Vince Vaughn, far right) finds himself in an awkward
position after learning that Geneva (Winona Ryder, far left) is cheating on his
best friend -- and her husband -- Nick (Kevin James). Aside from wondering
whether to share what he knows, the whole mess makes Ronny second-guess
his plans to propose to longtime girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly). Let the
laughter begin ... not.

Ah ... no.

This is a nasty, mean-spirited, tawdry little flick that attempts to milk humor from genuine pain. The laughs quickly become as desperate as the increasingly contrived plot elements that screenwriter Allan Loeb tosses into his inane storyline.

Director Ron Howard, wholly out of his comfort zone, seems to be trying for a modern update on the WWII-era screwball comedies that revolved around relationship ethics. To say that he misses would be grotesque understatement.

1940’s My Favorite Wife comes to mind: It finds Irene Dunne, long ago given up for dead in a shipwreck, returning to civilization after seven years to discover that former husband Cary Grant has remarried Gail Patrick. Things get more complicated when Grant, still deeply in love with Dunne, learns that she spent those seven years on a deserted island in the sole company of fellow survivor Randolph Scott.

Did they ... or didn’t they? And how can an increasingly frazzled Grant extricate himself from marriage No. 2 ... and does he really want to?

Hilarity ensues.

It worked, back in the day, because the characters in director Garson Kanin’s farce couldn’t be mistaken for real people; they were walking one-liner delivery systems. Feelings may have gotten bruised, but they weren’t battered, and the whole thing had the air of a well-executed drawing-room stage play.

Not so with The Dilemma.

Chicago-based Ronny (Vaughn) and Nick (James), longtime best friends, also are business partners in their own company, B&V Engine Design; Ronny’s the smooth-talking pitchman, while Nick is the engineering genius. Their current project is the only genuinely clever element in Loeb’s script: a proposed electric car engine that will mimic the vibrations, acceleration and full-throttle ooomph of a conventional engine, while still delivering the necessary environmental friendliness and mileage efficiency.

In other words, a way to keep putting guys behind the wheel of cars that look and sound sexy, rather than “gay” (a questionable attempt at humor which, when this particular scene was included in the preview, got Universal and Howard in trouble weeks before this film was released).

Chrysler execs bite, but their offer comes with an accelerated timetable; the already ulcer-prone Nick goes into nervous hyperdrive. At which point, totally out of the blue, Ronny – while seeking the perfect setting in which to pop the question to longtime girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly) – spots Nick’s wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder), snogging in a park with a heavily muscled young stud.

Nor is this the sort of chaste kiss that might be explained away on a brother or cousin (and, actually, Loeb plays that wheezy card later, under different circumstances). No, this is a rip-my-clothes-off-and-take-me-now kiss.

So ... what to do? Does Ronny’s role as best friend compel him to share what he knows? And does the answer depend on their current professional circumstances, when such news probably would torpedo Nick’s ability to finish their project in time to satisfy Chrysler?

Which brings us to the issue of tone.

Screwball comedies worked, back in Hollywood’s golden age, because clever screenwriters maintained a did they/didn’t they ambiguity; characters flirted with bad behavior, and we often weren’t absolutely sure of possibly naughty misdeeds. The uncertainty itself was funny, as were a given protagonist’s increasingly convoluted efforts to get at the truth.

But in this mess, Geneva readily acknowledges the affair when Ronny confronts her privately, and her waspish, vindictive attitude utterly sinks the film. Ryder, often on the verge of seeming arrogant and shrewish to begin with, plunges full-tilt into unbridled evil. And that’s with a capital E.

I don’t care how many funny faces Vaughn pulls, from that point forward; the laughter pretty much dies right then.

Not that Loeb stops trying for forced giggles, thanks to ever-more-ridiculous situations dragged in out of left field.

We meet and spend several scenes with Geneva’s boy toy, Zip (Channing Tatum). He turns out to be “sensitive,” poor thing. (But not really.) These are a bizarre few scenes, even for this flick.

Ronny struggles as a reformed gambler, we eventually learn, and so Beth begins to fear – confronted with an escalating series of crazy lies – that her guy has returned to his uncontrolled ways. Although this is precisely the sort of misdirection that should have yielded genuine humor, Loeb never goes anywhere with this plot contrivance; it’s used, solely as an afterthought, as one of Ronny’s defining character traits.

Once again, cue the problem that infects this whole picture: If we’re repeatedly told to accept these characters as actual, sympathetic people, then their fate at the hands of this storyline becomes malignant cruelty, rather than good-natured hijinks.

A few additional elements are so bizarre that they can’t be factored into the equation on any level, starting with Queen Latifah’s co-starring role as a rather vaguely defined Chrysler consultant. Is she really sympathetic to Nick and Ronny’s cause, or is she winding them up? And what’s with her jarringly vulgar enthusiasm? Queen Latifah can be a master of the well-timed put-down, but she’s no match for the idiotic dialogue Loeb puts into her mouth.

Then there’s the speech Ronny delivers, during a party celebrating the 40th wedding anniversary of Beth’s parents (her father played by Rance Howard, Ron Howard’s actual dad). Ronny takes this opportunity to talk “significantly” about honesty and trust, hoping to persuade Geneva to come clean. (Yeah, right.) This speech, ghastly from its first few words, goes on and on and on – seemingly forever, well past the point of any trace of humor – until we viewers are ready to slit our wrists rather than endure another word.

It all boils down to this: Do we care about any of these characters, or what happens to them? Even on a trivial level, assuming a superhuman ability to look beyond the malice and see them as no more than cardboard cut-outs?

Not really.

Connelly’s Beth emerges unscathed; she’s a genuinely nice and sensitive woman, and the only “grounded” character in this mess. Alas, she’s not the star, and Connelly’s sincere charm exists in a vacuum.

Vaughn’s bull-in-a-china-shop impetuousness wears thin awfully quickly, and James never gives us a solid fix on Nick’s personality; he behaves erratically, as Loeb requires, given the necessity of a particular scene.

The final analysis? This is a January movie: deservedly dumped in the wake of vastly superior Oscar-bait that you’d be well advised to catch up with, rather than endure this bomb.

No dilemma there.

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