REVIEW: Genre Confusion Makes For Hard-to-Watch Dilemma
The Dilemma, Ron Howard's cheerless, would-be relationship farce, begins with two couples around a dinner table and ends with two men running into each other's arms. Ronny (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Kevin James) are tight. Friends since college, they share their lives, they share a business -- Nick designs car engines and Ronny sells them to Big Auto -- and they've shared a woman at least once, just to keep things on the level. They share, in other words, the kind of bond that has transformed a certain kind of comedy into a homo-social love story, a soft-core sausage fest.
Exemplars of the form often have the kind of pitch-heavy titles that have traditionally signaled either high-concept camp (Snakes on a Plane) or a confident genre bid (When Harry Met Sally). But The Dilemma is bad in a way that seems to parody all the ways in which a film like, say, The 40-Year-Old Virgin was good: Where the latter's conceptual constraint fostered something fresh and startlingly funny, The Dilemma can't commit to its concept, and settles for a fourth-generation dub of a successful formula, hoping to squeak by under James's capacious, conga-dancing shadow and the blanket of improv jabber that Vaughn lays down as cover fire.
Along with its title, which seems to explain both everything and nothing (a twist screenwriter Allan Loeb, of The Switch, added to the form), Vaughn's presence bodes poorly -- his participation in similarly conceived projects (Wedding Crashers, The Break-Up, Couples Retreat) is taking on a distinctly downward trajectory. Playing a sweet-talking salesman, Vaughn's patented riffs are starting to feel like an act of aggression, or self-loathing, or some repellent combination of the two. Contempt has crept into his act and, as a friend of mine likes to say, relationships can survive anything but contempt.
So where does that leave us? Well, it looks like Chicago, though in the opening scene it feels more like the Upper West Side circa Husbands and Wives. Ronny and his girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly, poised at a moment in her beauty that is so exquisite it's almost painful to behold) are dining with Nick and his wife Geneva (Winona Ryder, giving a performance that will alternately satisfy and disappoint those who felt her turn in Black Swan was woefully brief). They are debating how long it takes to really get to know another person, and whether it's possible to truly know someone at all. Howard establishes these as sickeningly functional couples, which means they probably don't resemble any you might encounter out here in not-fake-Chicago, much less in a Woody Allen film.
The failure to establish which world these characters live in becomes more problematic as the film goes on. When Ronny discovers Geneva cheating with a tattooed himbo (Channing Tatum), the dilemma is twofold: Should he tell his best friend and surely derail not just Nick's marriage but the opportunity they snagged to build an electric hot rod engine for Chrysler? And does he really want to marry his magical girlfriend -- who never pressures him and is a thriving chef despite having not touched a carb since the Clinton administration -- when even the best people he knows can't make it work?
Ronny's ethical and emotional dilemmas never get their due. Too often his conflict is reduced to a limply executed farcical trope: Ronny would tell Nick, if only he could get a word in edgewise! Oh, why won't everyone shut up, so Ronny can resolve this whole thing! When he does confront Geneva to issue an ultimatum -- you tell him or I will -- she insists that he has no idea how complex a marriage can be. "You're a 5-year-old on a playground," she says, adding a blip of humanity to a character otherwise portrayed as a cuckolding troll. But Howard doesn't deliver on that complexity, beyond suggesting that marriage is a revenge game where everybody loses. And certainly nobody laughs. Comedies aren't concerned with reflecting the world -- or how people actually behave -- precisely, but they must set their own terms, and then invite us over. Wracked with indecision between bromantic farce and a cutting social comedy, The Dilemma can't, or won't, or in any case doesn't.
Instead the audience scrambles (or dawdles) behind as the film lurches from set-up to set-up along a wobbly tonal tightrope. The hope that Howard might have something in his back pocket dissolves along with what remains of Tatum's dignity during a climactic scene that is so busy ticking off misunderstandings that it forgets to climax. The unintended climax is the triumphal roar of that engine Nick's been building, a sound so dumb and primal it can mean only one thing: They're going to be rich.