Mediocrity hangs thick around The Dilemma, like a fog hugging a beach. Neither insipid or inspired, the film simply is, occasionally giving glimpses at what could have been - in other hands, and with other actors - a pretty good movie.
There’s an intriguing core to The Dilemma; Vince Vaughn is a man whose best friend and business partner, Kevin James, is unknowingly being cuckolded. The two are in the last minutes of the deal of a lifetime and James, a gifted engineer, must concentrate in order to be able to deliver. Vaughn finds himself torn between telling his friend what he knows and.. well, that’s it. The movie briefly flirts with the idea that Vaughn should simply wait three days to drop the bad news, but then realizes there would be no more movie if the character did anything sensible. So it has him falling out of trees and delivering ludicrous toasts and getting into trouble, all in the name of ‘comedy.’
It’s that comedy that almost kills The Dilemma. The central situation is thin - it’s a sitcom scenario - but there’s room to play with characters and emotions in that basic conceit. Instead the film has to conform to the presence of Vince Vaughn; like a black hole getting too near a star Vaughn deforms everything around him, taking what could have been a sophisticated and emotionally mature dramedy and turning it into a broad farce mixed with moments of off-putting gooiness and shameless sentiment.
Even still it almost works. Again, the movie’s not bad so much as it’s just there; I found the proceedings essentially amiable for most of the running time and only got into the serious eye rolling and heavy sighing in the final half hour. That’s when director Ron Howard really ramps up the attempts at guffaws, just before bringing it back in a neckbreakingly quick turn into raw, meaningless sentiment. But it’s okay. It’s not like Vaughn’s last comedy from Universal, the hideous Couple’s Retreat. It’s closer to his reasonably affable Universal film The Break-Up. It sits right in the middle of the Vaughn Universal Romcom Trilogy.
The problem here is that the leads are miscast. Actually, the problem here is that there’s only one lead; while the ads will make you expect a buddy comedy, Kevin James is barely in the film. That sounds like a good thing, but the reality is that it leaves Vaughn bouncing off of nothing. Because the biggest dilemma facing The Dilemma is the decision of what kind of movie it wants to be - a broad comedy or a funny drama - the gags come slowly and with no regularity. As Vaughn floats around, sort of doing his thing - ie, worrying way too much about what he should tell his friend - there’s a lack of incident. Not much actually happens, because Howard (and, I assume, writer Allan Loeb) want to keep things classier. But then every now and again something really broad occurs, and it feels like a different Vince Vaughn film is butting up against this one. Whether it’s a painful urination gag or an over the top fight with Channing Tatum or an inappropriate toast to his girlfriend’s parents, all of these gag sequences feel wrong and out of place. And there are not enough of them (the food is terrible! And the portions are so small!). Everything is imbalanced.
Back to the miscasting: Vaughn should be the guy getting cheated on. His silver tongued con man character (you know, the usual) isn’t the kind of guy who finds himself all but paralyzed in this situation. If anything, the character Vince Vaughn usually plays would be the kind of guy who gets himself into trouble trying to keep the cheating from Kevin James until after the deal they’re working on is sealed. It’s the Kevin James character - here a guy who has an ulcer, is stressed out beyond belief, is a regular schlub who overreacts to every situation - who should be stuck with the dilemma. It’s part of the movie’s fundamental imbalance.
While Vaughn is wrong for the role he’s playing, he’s not bad. Still puffy and aging into some kind of huge toad, he’s funny enough. This was my first full Kevin James film (or TV show or anything) and he wasn’t so bad. Again, he’s barely in the thing - he shows up every couple of scenes to remind us how totally stressed out he is. Like the rest of the movie James is amiable enough.
The female leads are staggeringly miscast as well. We’re expected to believe that Winona Ryder married Kevin James, for starters. And then Jennifer Connelly is forced to play opposite Vaughn, tamping down all of her natural intelligence in order to appear as a fairly co-dependent wisp of a human. Her character trait is that she’s a chef. It’s weird watching these strong, talented actresses play second fiddle to these men.
And what men they are. The Dilemma is one of the most guysiest films I’ve seen in years. They go to hockey games and working class bars and they drive Dodge Chargers and work in a garage and dress poorly. The whole movie’s aesthetic seems to have escaped from one of those beer commercials where the guys hide in one room to be ‘dudes’ while their disapproving and too attractive wives tut at them from the other room. Dudes. Bros. Guys.
The Dilemma is the slightest Ron Howard film since EdTV; whatever you want to say about Howard’s career his films are not usually eminently forgettable. Some are terrific, some are atrocious, all feel like movies. The Dilemma is a film that slips away from existence immediately; know how you read the first sentence of this paragraph and said ‘Holy shit, I totally forgot that EdTV existed, or that Ron Howard directed it!’? You’ll do the same thing in ten years about The Dilemma.
Loeb’s scrip isn’t bad, but every time it flirts with something meaty - like the idea that perhaps the person cheating isn’t the bad guy in the relationship - it veers away fluff. Maybe there’s a great version of this script sitting in a vault; I don’t care enough to find out.
Every edge of The Dilemma is softened, every interesting concept is neutered. But there is one thing that shines in the film, one performance that briefly elevates the movie to another level: Channing Tatum. Playing Ryder’s piece on the side, Tatum is over the top and broad and absurd in a way that has pizzazz. He’s fun, something that’s in short supply in The Dilemma. Queen Latifah is supposed to be the female side of that equation, the wacky side character, but she’s just actually insufferable. She’s trying too hard; Tatum is just having fun.
And so another January movie has come and gone. Another film whose poster has two guys standing against a white background with the title in red comedy lettering has moved through our lives. Somewhere in Hollywood tonight Vince Vaughn is reading a script about a silver tongued manchild who has a best buddy (shorter, fatter) with whom he will have guy-oriented but lady-friendly semi-comedic adventures. And then he’ll look at that Swingers poster on his wall and a tear will roll down his cheek, wetting the page of that current script where the two best friends engage in endearingly and humorous homoerotic behavior.