Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Dilemma
Suffocating Secrets And Lies: Wash, Rinse, Repeat. 

Winona Ryder, Jennifer Connelly, Vince Vaughn, Kevin James in Ron Howard's comedy "The Dilemma". 
Universal Pictures

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ron Howard takes a well-earned vacation from his serious films ("Angels & Demons", "Frost/Nixon", "Cinderella Man", "The Da Vinci Code", "The Missing") to helm "The Dilemma", a comedy about an engine products salesman caught between the truth of the affair his best friend's wife is having and keeping his friend in the dark about it.  The film opened yesterday across the U.S. and Canada.

Set in Chicago, Mr. Howard's film sees Ronny (Vince Vaughn) caught in a pickle.  Ronny's lived with Beth (Jennifer Connelly), his girlfriend, for several years.  They're practically married.  Ronny's best buddy and business partner Nick (Kevin James) is a nervy sort.  Low on confidence, a touch neurotic, Nick is affable.  Nick's wife Geneva (Winona Ryder) may as well be in the city she's named after.  She's been observed in the throes of a passionate embrace and kiss with another man in public.  It's enough to make a grown man trip and fall in a public garden.

To see or not to see isn't the question here.  There's nothing to see here.

There's no dilemma at all in "The Dilemma".  The comedy (which corrals its total number of laughs on a portion of a pinky finger) offers no consternation upon which to draw credible, anxiety-ridden agita in Ronny.  The film's success or failure depends largely, if not singularly, upon whether (and how) Mr. Vaughn is able to juggle Ronny's turmoil and remain sane, and whether the script provides the requisite apparatus.

On these fronts "The Dilemma" strikes out.  Mr. Vaughn
goes far to get results, a select few chuckle-worthy.  Yet the material written by Allan Loeb stays in the shallow end of the pool, as do the actors, except Jennifer Connelly, who rises beyond the weak writing and scene development.  Since the film's set-up is rather tepid the actors have little to play off or sink their teeth into.  The over-acted, hyperbolic antics become compensation for a situation that isn't evident to begin with.

What if Ronny got what he had seen all wrong?  "The Dilemma" could have taken other ideas and possibilities and run to the hills with them, but the film instead reverts to Hollywood's safe and familiar headquarters in the name of cheap, scant laughs.  The payoffs are weak and the comedy is in very short supply.

The players on Mr. Howard's canvas shriek hysterically to win guffaws.  Comedy is hard to do, but even harder when the screenplay offered isn't nearly as potent as it could be.  The characters in Mr. Loeb's script aren't ever removed from their surface trappings.  Inert, they wait to be pin-pricked into a state of frenzy.  "The Dilemma" begins with a semi-serious conversation among its four principles at a restaurant.  The way the opening credits place names of actors next to corresponding actor's faces suggests a weighty, important tone, and dramatic events to come.  Nothing that follows however, matches this unremarkable opening scene.

Kevin James as Nick, Queen Latifah as Susan and Vince Vaughn as Ronny in "The Dilemma".  Universal Pictures

Beth and Geneva are long time friends, via their partners.  While I'll sound na
ïve, I'd expect that Geneva would likely disclose her indiscretion to Beth and trust her to keep it confidential.  Assuming that Beth and Geneva know and trust each other, the audience may also expect this.  The film doesn't go that route, letting Mr. Vaughn's excursions and by definition Ronny's follies take over, making "The Dilemma" predictable and near lifeless.  Cliché express?  We've seen that movie, too.

Ms. Connelly would likely have handled the central role Mr. Vaughn enjoys convincingly, giving her the opportunity to explore comedy within a semi-dramatic framework.  She's more than capable.  The script doesn't trust Ms. Connelly's abilities enough or give her character the chance.  (As a contrast, I think of "The Savages", the biting satire with Laura Linney.  Different story, yes, but there's comedy and serious moments.  The performances work.  The characters are real.)  Here, the characters are artificial.  "The Dilemma" needed something more serious and substantive within its comedic setting to challenge and stretch the acting muscles of its cast.

Granted, there's a moment where the film gets serious.  It comes during a scene midway through between Mr. Vaughn and Ms. Connelly, but Mr. Howard and co. quickly retreat from delving deeper, depriving us of an adult experience from which comedy might arise.  "The Dilemma" didn't connect with me, and felt empty right after the opening scene. 

Mr. Howard's "Beautiful Mind" collaborator Ms. Connelly comes off worst.  Beth is the lone warrior of goodwill and intellect, but as in "He's Just Not That Into You", another comedy in which she was the sole dramatic voice of reason, she has barely 30 minutes of total screen time.  Nonetheless, Ms. Connelly makes the best of a bad situation, and as in "He's Just Not That Into You", her Beth is the smartest character on the block in a blockheaded film.  Mr. Loeb's script betrays her, making Beth more foolish than she has a right to be.  Throughout, Beth is the only level-headed adult.  Then later her explanations, while plausible, don't truly fit the way her character has behaved.  There's nothing in the film suggesting that the rationale for her decisions makes logical sense.

Neither does the role Queen Latifah plays, which appears to have been filler for the troubling holes in the.  She has a slither of time to shine.  In those precious seconds Ms. Latifah brings life and enthusiasm, but her character rings as falsely as the others.  The cast of "The Dilemma" should appreciate that comedy may not be about making amusing or exaggerated gestures.  Or about who can shout the loudest.

After "The Dilemma" ended I felt I had gone to a comedy and watched wind-up toys -- human ones -- march, shout, dance and fall.  "The Dilemma" deserves neither Queen Latifah nor the collection of the other talented performers, including Channing Tatum ("Dear John"), Winona Ryder (icy here as Geneva) and Amy Morton ("Up In The Air").

Call this film "Mr. Howard's Holiday".  Come tax time the Academy Award-winning director will probably designate "The Dilemma" as a write-off on his illustrious resume.

With: Chelcie Ross, Eduardo N. Martinez, Rance Howard, Clint Howard, Guy Van Swearingen, Troy West, Laura Whyte, Grace Rex.

"The Dilemma" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some language.  The film's running time is one hour and 52 minutes.

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