Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Dilemma

The Dilemma stumbles along like an amiable drunk that can’t quite find his footing. The worst he’s likely to do is annoy you, but your best bet is to stay out of his way if you can.

Vince Vaughn plays – well, you know what he plays. Ronny Valentine is a paunchy party boy on the verge of a panic attack, his motor-mouthed patter designed to draw attention away from the vulnerability in his eyes. Ronny’s pudgy best friend and partner (they co-own a small auto development business) is Nick, the Barney to Ronny’s Fred Flintstone. A nerve-shot little nerd, Nick (Kevin James) relies on his big pal for practically everything.

Their bromance is (very conspicuously) set in Chicago, but it really takes place in that arid Hollywood no-man’s land where every scene is a brief setup followed by a lame bit of schtick, and where you can see just about every plot twist a mile off. As soon as Ronny declares that Nick and his improbably pretty wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder) are his “hero couple,” for instance, you figure something bad is about to happen to them. And sure enough, Ronny soon spots Geneva making out with a hot boy (Channing Tatum) – and he’s off. As he agonizes over when and how to tell Nick, Ronny wades deeper and deeper into the morass of his friend’s dysfunctional marriage, learning things he never wanted to know while making things worse with his bumbling interference.

In a four-way dinner conversation that opens the movie, Ronny riffs on whether we can ever really know another person. It’s an interesting question, which the script explores in other ways too – mainly through Geneva, an intriguingly unpredictable character brought to brooding life by Ryder. Jennifer Connelly unearths some layers in a less well-rounded character as Ronny’s adoring girlfriend, who stays loyal to the big lug as he bangs around the joint, bruising her delicate sensibilities. But not even the almost always charming Queen Latifah can redeem the maniacally upbeat Susan (“I got lady wood!”).

Susan is a consultant hired by Chrysler to shepherd Ronny and Nick through the process as they rush to create an electric muscle car prototype they can sell to Detroit. That project is an origami tiger, just one more temporary roadblock to keep Ronny from telling Nick about his marital problems, since Ronny doesn’t want to distract his engineer friend from his work until he’s finished the car.

Director Ron Howard presumably could have made a pretty good drama about all that – not to mention the questions of loyalty and honesty that the script periodically raises -- or turned it into a sweet little comedy of misunderstanding, along the lines of his early hit Splash. Instead, he mashed together a lumpy mix of comedy and drama in which the comic bits are often awkward and the emotions realistically raw. When Ronny calls his sister, fishing for her advice on whether he should tell Nick about Geneva’s affair, his coded questions convince her that her own husband is cheating, but when she rages at him for choosing such a cowardly way to deliver the news he just raises his eyebrows and hangs up the phone. The scene is mean to be funny but it plays out all wrong, the intensity of her agony making his cluelessness seem less comic than cruel.

But no sooner has he done something obnoxious than Ronny does something sweet or goes off on another of Vaughn’s patented run-on riffs. You get the feeling the actor is doing for his movie what his character is doing for himself: tap dancing as fast as he can in an effort to salvage a desperately uncomfortable situation.

Written for TimeOFF

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