The first sign that “The Dilemma” wasn’t meant to be just another on the stack of terrible bland romantic comedies that Hollywood releases each year is that Allan Loeb is the only credited writer on the film. Ron Howard’s so firmly entrenched in the mainstream at this point that anyone looking for the mainstream could use him as their true north for a compass reading, but Loeb is a real-deal writer who blew up a few years ago with a handful of scripts on The Black List that pretty much everyone read. He got handed a bunch of studio assignments right away, and now we’re starting to see those assignments bear fruit as actual movies. How’s Loeb fared as a studio-go-to-dude? Well, based on the evidence of “The Dilemma,” it’s an uneasy fit so far.
Ronny (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Kevin James) are college friends who have spent their entire adult lives working together and sharing all their personal time as well. Nick married his college girlfriend, Geneva (Winona Ryder), while Ronny took the more free-wheeling path. He’s in a serious relationship with Beth (Jennifer Connelly), but he’s still gun-shy about the idea of proposing marriage, even at the age of 40. Nick and Ronny run a design firm for car parts, and they manage to land a big bid with one of the Detroit majors. Ronny’s the mouth, the sales guy, the face of the company, and Nick’s the genius, the guy who actually designs the things that they sell. Once Ronny lands them the bid, it’s up to Nick to deliver, which is why Ronny has no idea what to do when he spots Geneva making out with Zip (Channing Tatum) one afternoon in a public place.
The rest of the movie hinges on that idea of whether or not you tell your friend, and there are signs in the script that Loeb had some pretty compelling ways to grapple with that question. When you’re dealing with material that’s this dark in nature, I’d rather see you deal with it honestly. Really show what these events can do to a marriage, to a friendship, to a business. Neither of these couples have children, which changes the dynamic completely. Nick and Geneva are held up as perfect at the start of the film, the greatest couple. Touchy-feely even after all these years, happy, in love. When Ronny sees Geneva cheating, it upsets him not just on his friend’s behalf, but on his own behalf. The whole reason he’s at the gardens where he sees Geneva is because he’s looking for a place to propose to Beth. He wants what Nick and Geneva have, and if it’s not real, then what does Ronny have to hold onto?
The film’s got some major tone issues, and while I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the film entirely as some people were doing after our screening the other night, I think the tone problems are significant enough that it gives me pause in recommending the film at all. Take the scene I mentioned above, where Ronny sees Geneva, ends up being played as broad slapstick involving poison ivy, and a later sequence turns into a broad and wacky fight at a moment where, emotionally, the film should be doing something totally different. The thing is, there’s not much comedy in the film. For a movie that’s being sold as something funny, this is really sort of sad and miserable. It’s a film about the lies that everyone tells, and if they’d had the nerve to really embrace that instead of dressing it up like something it isn’t, this could have been one of Howard’s best films.
There are hints of what could have been all the way through the movie. The truth about Geneva and Nick is more complicated than Ronny understands at first, and the way they’re revealed as anything but perfect as a couple is something genuine. There’s a truth there. Beth and Ronny have a history of disappointment that they’re working past, and Ronny’s behavior after he learns about Geneva starts making Beth suspicious. He’s lying to her, but not to cover up something about himself, and the way that starts to erode their relationship just as he’s trying to find a way to propose marriage to her is also excellent fodder for a serious film. In fact, the best scene in the movie is between Connelly and Vaughn, late in the film, as they finally sit, face-to-face, telling the truth. It’s perfectly played by both of them, and in that moment, I was reminded how good Vince Vaughn can be when directors trust him to do more than the alpha-male motormouth thing that this film leans on too heavily. Vaughn made such a strong impression in “Swingers” that he pretty much ruined his own career in the same moment that he made it. He has been forced into one small box for the most part since then, and he certainly plays to the notion of “that Vince Vaughn thing” here.
Maybe the strangest choice in the film is the casting. Everything feels inverted. It’s sort of like “Neighbors,” when Belushi and Aykroyd famously switched the parts that they were originally offered before they would agree to do to the film. It makes more sense for Vaughn to be the one whose “perfect” wife is cheating, and James to be the one who is tortured by the secret. The way things work here, the dynamic never really gels. I don’t buy the friendship, and without that, I don’t buy the problem in the film. I get easily annoyed by movies where characters make bad decisions for no reason, and there are several of them in this film. Ronny tries some of the right things, including talking to Geneva and pinning down proof before he talks to Nick, but he also makes terrible choices and does blatantly stupid things as well. There are some other missteps including a character played by Queen Latifah that is jarringly out of step with the tone of the rest of the film and the auto engine subplot which is really just a distraction, and which doesn’t pay off thematically with anything else in the film. Still, for all the criticisms I have of the film, I can’t shake the things that did work, and I think that better movie that you can see in this one could have been provocative.
As it is, “The Dilemma” just feels like a big bowl full of ingredients that never makes the jump to a finished recipe. The film opens everywhere tomorrow.