CHICAGO – In many ways, “The Dilemma” is director Ron Howard’s most daring film. Leaving behind the usual well-lit moral stories, good and bad, Howard weaves a narrative basket filled with infidelity, gambling addiction, blackmail and mistrust. Here’s Opie from the Dark Side, with Vince Vaughn and Kevin James on the trip.
But The Dilemma, marketed as a comedy, has some problems. It’s episodic, and the whole does not equal the sum of its parts. The sequences live and die under Vaughn’s interaction with them, resulting in a quest for bizarre and unlikely circumstances. The flow of the story never has a rhythm and is also plagued by a deadly serious nature that doesn’t make you laugh.
Vaughn is Ronny, a marketing guru for an auto design company that includes his best friend Nick (Kevin James). Nick is married in Geneva (Winona Ryder) and Ronny is currently dating Beth (Jennifer Connelly), whom he met through Nick and Geneva. The couples bond as best friends, and Ronny seriously considers asking Beth to marry him, despite past discretion as a drug addict.
This happy world is turned upside down by a chance encounter. While searching for a suitable proposal site, Ronny spots Geneva in the arms of another man (Channing Tatum). Ronny isn’t quite sure what to do with this information, as the moment comes just as he and Nick are working on a landmark design for a major auto company. Nick is the nervous type, and Ronny thinks the project will be in jeopardy if he delivers the news that Geneva is cheating.
Becoming obsessed with the situation, Ronny decides to take matters into his own hands and confronts Geneva with his acquaintances. In a turnaround, Geneva comes back on him with the threat of exposing damaging news about their past. The uncomfortable dilemma has now grown even more desperate, as Ronny struggles with what to do.
Photo credit: © Universal Pictures
The film had a surprising twist, as Winona Ryder’s Geneva goes a little beyond the typical cheat faced. In the unexpected scene that she and Vaughn have when she blackmails him, Ryder shows off some dark, runny acting chops while making Ronny realize that she can make his life miserable too. While this takes the film to other territories, it doesn’t help the so-called comedic angle at all and throws a veil over an already uncomfortable situation.
Also to its discredit, the film gave its characters high conceptual reactions to simple, more low-key real-life elements. Ronny’s obsession with cheating, while applied as loyalty to a friend, seems to go beyond what a person would do in such a situation. This extreme gives the choppy nature of the flow, with a make-up process as you go, rather than a sense of human history. Another example is an inappropriate toast that Ronny gives at a special event, seemingly funny but also very unlikely to happen.
Kevin James becomes a background prop in all of this, and his schizophrenic performance has no real compass. He’s portrayed as a somewhat shy loser, but on the other hand, he likes to go to dark places in Chicago to get massage “services.” It’s part of the tsunami of justifications for cheating that Geneva exposes, but it doesn’t match how James’ character would function, given some previous scenes of his nervous and insecure nature.
Queen Latifah is considered to be an automotive executive, just providing outrageous support to the design team, which for some reason is meant to be charming. It was odd to see her in what turned out to be a cameo performance, punctuated by constant reference to her “female parts”. Any third-rate actress could have come on board with this limited line read, this stunt cast ultimately got boring.
Photo credit: © Universal Pictures
Despite a few inspired scenes – the fight between Vaughn and Channing Tatum (Geneva’s boyfriend) had a cold, funny resonance – director Howard seemed unable to decide whether it was a comedy or a dark ship in human madness. If he had chosen one side or the other, it probably would have been more successful.
Movie stars like Vaughn and James can’t get too dark or they risk their images. Feelings like jealousy, obsession, addiction and lust beneath the surface of this film were blithely reconciled with a comedic monologue from Vince Vaughn at the right time. But given what was attempted in The Dilemma, this time it just didn’t fit.