With or without the “electric cars are gay” joke that made its trailer a subject of controversy last fall, “The Dilemma” is not a particularly funny movie. Indeed, the true dilemma of this misguided seriocomedy lies in the filmmakers’ confusion as to whether they’re making a side-splitting bromance (nope) or an unsparing, warts-and-all look at screwed-up relationships (sort of). Vince Vaughn’s reliable motor-mouth antics should appeal to a stream of mid-January laugh seekers, but overall audience reaction looks to be as muddled as the picture itself; electric cars aside, this Universal release is one strange hybrid.
Lean, fast-talking Ronny Valentine (Vaughn) and portly, hard-working Nick Brennan (Kevin James) have been best buds since their college days, which is evident from their similarly swaggering moves on the dance floor and the way they communicate primarily through guy-movie references and football metaphors. The two men are also business partners, on the verge of putting their Chicago-based engine-design company on the map by landing an exclusive contract with Dodge.
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Ronny plans to propose to his girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly), expecting they’ll be as happy as Nick and his wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder) — a hope that turns sour when Ronny catches Geneva kissing a well-muscled stud with a lot of tattoos (Channing Tatum). Like any good friend, Ronny wants to break the news to Nick but doesn’t know how — or when, given this crucial phase of their business operation. And his attempts to confront Geneva with her infidelity are met with surprising defiance, anger and self-justification on her part.
Just when the film should be zeroing in on this to-tell-or-not-to-tell scenario, it shifts gears and piles on a mass of distractingly soapy complications, to the point where the quandary in question all but recedes into the background. Issues from Ronny’s past, including a long-buried gambling addiction, conveniently rear their head, driving a wedge between him and Beth, and keeping Nick in the dark about what’s really going on. It’s one thing for Ronny to avoid the issue, but too often “The Dilemma” seems to be doing the same, straining viewer investment in either Nick and Geneva’s rocky marriage or Nick and Ronny’s macho-tender buddy bond.
Pic reps a comic breather for director Ron Howard after a decade-long string of prestige dramas and Dan Brown thrillers, though the script by Allan Loeb (“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” “Things We Lost in the Fire”) clearly harbors more serious aspirations, with results that are significantly less funny than advertised yet also harder to dismiss out of hand. Not unlike Vaughn’s 2006 outing, “The Break-Up,” “The Dilemma” seeks to explore uncomfortable, even off-putting relationship terrain under the guise of a mainstream crowd-pleaser, albeit with no obligation to make its characters especially likable.
But it’s a balance that’s too tricky for Howard and his cast to sustain over the long haul and, at 110 minutes, it’s a long haul indeed; the stabs at seriousness deflate the comedy, and the feeble yuks trivialize the drama. Memorable moments do emerge here and there: Vaughn gets one doozy of a scene, showcasing his peerless ability to shove his foot deeper and deeper into his mouth in ever more squirm-inducing increments, and the pleasures of one shockingly violent setpiece, in which Ronny brandishes a makeshift blowtorch at Tatum’s home-wrecker, can’t be entirely discounted.
As Nick, James brings little personality to a guy who seems alternately clueless and stressed out, and Connelly, though a shade looser and more spontaneous than usual, seems stuck at an emotional remove from the action. That leaves Ryder as the only thesp capable of really holding the screen opposite Vaughn: As written, Geneva is the sort of nasty, unrepentant tramp for whom the phrase “bros before hos” was invented, but the script, to its credit, allows her to honestly voice her disappointment with the way her marriage has turned out. It’s a problematic role to which Ryder (also getting down with her bad self in the recent “Black Swan”) brings much more thorny emotion than it deserves.
In a further sign of genre identity crisis, Queen Latifah, who generally can be counted on to brighten any screen, is shoehorned into the story as an unfunny if overly gregarious Chrysler employee, and someone seems to have gone out of their way to light her less flatteringly than the principal cast. Tech credits are rough overall; one shot, intended to point up the disparity in height between the two male leads, goes perhaps too far by cropping off the top of Vaughn’s head.