Movie Review: The Dilemma
By Matthew Huntley
January 27, 2011
There are two different movies vying for screen time in Ron Howard’s The Dilemma. One is a traditional slapstick comedy with all the usual gags and misunderstandings; the other is a semi-serious drama about being placed in the middle of a difficult situation with no clear sign of how to get out. The two types are so dissimilar it feels like Howard is trying to make two corner pieces of a puzzle fit together. No matter how hard he tries, it’s not going to happen. Even if he does, it won’t look right.
Vince Vaughn and Kevin James play Ronnie and Nick, a couple of best friends who own and run a car engine company. They’ve set their hearts on developing a loud, beastly motor that can sound like and mimic the muscle cars from the 1960s but still be powered electronically. At the Chicago Auto Show, they set up a meeting with the head of GM and Nick begins to feel the pressure of making his prototype work in order to secure a long-term deal. He spearheads the technological side of their business; Ronnie handles the finances.
Both men have significant others. Ronnie has a girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly), and Nick is married to Geneva (Winona Ryder), seemingly happily. Ronnie’s world comes crushing down when, during a visit to Chicago’s botanical gardens to research the perfect place to propose to Beth, he sees Geneva kissing another man (Channing Tatum) and is suddenly faced with “the dilemma” of telling Nick or not. If he does, he might crush the poor guy, who’s already suffering under the anxiety of work, which is manifesting itself into stomach pains. If he doesn’t, he’d be violating “guy code” and keeping his best friend in the dark about something tragically important.
If I had to choose whether The Dilemma be a comedy or drama, I’d opt for drama because its emotional moments have more consequence than the comic ones. As a comedy, the movie doesn’t do anything new or different and many scenes seem ripped right out of a sitcom, as when Ronnie slips on a rock and falls into a patch of poisonous plants, resulting in a skin rash; or when Ronnie follows Nick to a massage parlor and has to quickly turn corners and duck so as not to be seen; or when he climbs up to Geneva’s lover’s apartment in disguise and starts taking pictures, leading to a bizarrely violent sequence where Ronnie and Zip, the Tatum character, duke it out and almost kill each other. Even as we’re watching it, we’re not sure this scene is meant to be funny or taken seriously. It seems unsure of itself, which just makes it awkward.
The dramatic scenes have more weight because the screenplay by Allan Loeb actually takes the notion of honesty and loyalty between friends seriously. It ponders the pros and cons of telling Nick the truth and knows how much pain and stress can arise when people keep things from the people they love. The movie’s theme of whether or not you can ever really know someone is blatantly spoken during the opening scene, and while the dialogue is overstated, it stays in our minds as we learn all the characters are keeping secrets, even those we think are innocent.
If the movie focused solely on its dramatic elements, it might have added up to something. The comic scenes merely remind us of all the fat that should have been trimmed in the editing room. For instance, the Zip character is more or less a throwaway and adds nothing to the story. He’s made out to be a stereotypical scum bag with lots of tattoos, hyperactive aggression and one of those tough guy soft sides. And once again, Channing Tatum appears so stiff on-screen we wonder if he’ll ever be able to crack a smile. We’ve yet to see him really act.
I’m afraid the same goes for Queen Latifah as one of the GM reps. She serves no purpose other than to speak snappy, suggestive dialogue (“I’m getting female wood”). All the mumbo jumbo she and Ronnie talk about in regards to the electric motor subplot is an unnecessary distraction from the movie’s bigger picture and the more interesting, character-based situations.
With its two genres constantly playing tug-of-war, The Dilemma ends up being a mess. This is not the kind of movie Ron Howard usually directs. His are often tighter, more focused and better paced (see Frost/Nixon or Ransom). The Dilemma unfortunately runs around without ever finding a cohesive thread. It’s a movie that would have benefited from more deleted scenes, particularly the ones that try to be funny.