By: Roxana Hadadi
Vince Vaughn is hilarious. “The Dilemma” is not.
Perhaps that is because it’s been awhile, more than 20 years, since director Ron Howard helmed a comedy, 1989’s “Parenthood.” Instead of being infused with that film’s lightness and comedic ease, “The Dilemma” has more in common with Howard’s recent disappointing dramas, 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code” and 2009’s “Angels & Demons” (you can blame Dan Brown’s source material, but still). At two hours, “The Dilemma” is slow, almost plodding, and probably could have been trimmed a half-hour or so. Its characters are sketches of real people, far from entirely developed. And Vaughn isn’t nearly as crass as he has been in his best films, like “Wedding Crashers.” Vince Vaughn without any well-meaning raunchiness or over-the-top asides? It’s as boring as it sounds.
It’s not that Vaughn is a bad actor – his dramatic turn in 2007’s “Into the Wild” was impressive, and when given a solid, humorous script, he excels, like as the comic foil to Brad Pitt in 2005’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” But “The Dilemma” is neither serious enough to be a complete drama or funny enough to be a complete comedy. It exists in a weird middle ground where we know a bit about Vaughn’s character’s personal issues, like a gambling addiction, but also where Channing Tatum’s character, a tattooed dolt named Zip, weeps about his dead fish while high on OxyContin. Despite Howard’s best efforts to make the humor topical – like that much-discussed “gay” joke, which we’ll get to later – “The Dilemma” just doesn’t click.
The film focuses on best friends Ronny (Vaughn) and Nick (Kevin James), who are also partners in an engine design business. Though Nick’s last three prototypes have been flops, they’re handed a real opportunity after a meeting with Dodge: If the pair can deliver on an engine that’s energy-efficient while also sounding like a vintage muscle car, they’ll receive a long-term contract from the car company. As the engineering brains behind the partnership, Nick is constantly stressed out – with a stomach ulcer as proof – and since they’re on a tight deadline to deliver a product, Ronny is nervous about doing or saying anything to Nick that would add to the pressure.
That hands-off approach gets tricky, though, when Ronny sees the worst thing he could think of: Nick’s wife Geneva (Winona Ryder) making out with another man, the grungy-looking, wallet chain-wearing Zip (Channing Tatum), at the garden where Ronny was planning to propose to his girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly). Until that point, Ronny had thought Nick and Geneva were the picture of a perfect marriage – he calls them his “heroes” while the two couples are out dancing – and the thought of Geneva’s unfaithfulness, coupled with how the news could affect Nick’s work before their deadline, leaves Ronny conflicted.
Should he tell Nick? His best friend’s frustrated attitude at work discourages Ronny from taking that route. Should he tell Beth? He doesn’t want to draw her into the web, but his lies only fuel her suspicion that he’s gambling again. And should he confront Geneva? Well, he does – and their spat, as well as the suggestion that they have a “big secret” that Geneva will unleash to ruin his friendship with Nick if Ronny tells the truth, drives the film’s remaining drama.
Sorry, did I say “drama”? I meant prolonged boredom. The film establishes a few things early on – how hard Nick and Ronny are working to make their company a success, how worried Ronny is of screwing up what he has with Beth, how strong Nick thinks his relationship with Geneva is – and though Howard leads us down a path that seems to strike down each of these plot points, this isn’t a direct route. This isn’t the hypotenuse of a triangle. This is a meandering, plodding sojourn around the base and height of that geometric shape, one so excruciatingly slow that you almost end up rooting for the dissolution of Ronny’s sanity just so things will get a move on already. There’s a lot of Ronny thinking, a lot of Ronny walking around and a lot of him stalking Geneva, and not nearly enough of Vaughn acting like a fool.
The film’s best moments only come when Ronny finally breaks, allowing Vaughn the zaniness we all want to see. His fight with Zip around the guy’s house and through Zip’s suburban streets is hilarious, as is his overly dramatic speech at Beth’s parents’ anniversary dinner. His interactions with Dodge employee Susan (Queen Latifah), who gets a little too sexually excited about the noise a car’s engine makes, are gold, especially when she drops inappropriate terms like “ladywood.” And his stand-offs with Ryder, who flexes the same witchy chops she did as ousted ballerina Beth in this winter’s “Black Swan,” are similarly fantastic, since they give us a chance to see Vaughn’s confused face. You know you love that face.
But there’s little else to love about “The Dilemma,” which takes a simple friendship problem and makes it painstakingly overwrought. There’s no real chemistry between Vaughn and James – certainly not like there was between Vaughn and Owen Wilson in “Wedding Crashers,” or Vaughn and Ben Stiller in “Dodgeball” – so their scenes together lack a certain zing. Since we don’t know that much about Ronny’s previous life as a gambler, Beth’s worry about him relapsing doesn’t seem that serious. And how did Geneva meet Zip in the first place, and what drew such mismatched people to each other? Alas, you’re not going to find out.
The PG-13 rating fits – there’s cursing, a sex scene between Geneva and Zip where you see Tatum’s behind and a blurry side shot of Ryder naked, an implied massage parlor with Asian female stereotypes who give you more than you paid for, some discussed drug use and a fight scene with a flamethrower and baseball bat – but for all that, the film’s most unsavory moment comes during Ronny’s speech about how energy-efficient cars are “gay.” Howard makes sure Ronny’s character explains that the cars aren’t “gay” as in homosexual, but “gay” as in comical or weak, because that’s less offensive. Well, “The Dilemma” is utterly forgettable – and all the definitions of “forgettable” apply.