Universal Pictures is pushing Ron Howard’s new film as an all-star comedy. For me it’s about a 2-starrer. Sure “The Dilemma” features a couple of laugh-out-loud comedy actors whose names will draw in their fans, but some of the darker issues dealt with in the film—adultery, deception, mistrust, and more than a few embarrassing scrapes—make it a fitful comedy, at best. There is preciously little that is hilarious in this story of two college buddies who met as Ball State University sophomores and are now partnered building car motors as B+V Engine Design, a really small, barely afloat Chicago concept company trying to land a big job in Detroit. But there is something off-putting as their resourcefulness is seemingly more by sleigh-0f-marketing-hand than actual brain power. The B+V are Nick Brennan (Kevin James) and Ronny Valentine (Vince Vaughn), the former the engineering genius, the latter the motor-mouth salesman.
The men-are-boys relationships are cuddled, then curdled, by their significant others. Ronny, a recovering gambler, lives with sexy and smart girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly), a up-and-coming chef, but he has trouble popping a marriage proposal, despite Nick’s encouragement. Nick is apparently happy with wife Geneva (Winona Ryder), until Ronny discovers her avidly smooching Zip (Channing Tatum), a tattooed dolt, while scouting out the botanical gardens for the perfect spot to ask Beth for her hand in marriage. Ulcers spread as Ronny holds the distasteful information from his buddy so Nick can concentrate on the impending business deal with Chrysler. As Ronny turns amateur private eye to try and right the wrong side of the manipulative, trampy Geneva and save his friend’s marriage, Nick, Beth, et al, believe Ronny has fallen off the gambler’s wagon and intervention is required. The wayward boys don’t seem to be spending much time on their business, but in this fractured fairy tale, that would not seem to matter as the nearly two-hour feature finally stumbles to a close. Queen Latifah’s side plot as a wacky corporate executive and their Detroit go-between adds to the film’s discomfort level.
The only funny gag in this semi-serious work is when Ronny asks, metaphorically, his sister Diane (Amy Morton) about infidelity, which she mistakenly believes to be about her marriage. The repercussions provide the few moments of hilarity in a film that basically is a witches brew of screwed-up relationships.
It has been more than a few decades since Ron Howard, who has brought forth some fine comedies like “Gung Ho,” “Parenthood,” and “Night Shift,” has ventured back into the genre. Thrillers (Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons”) and Academy Award calibre dramas (“Frost/Nixon,” “A Beautiful Mind”) have been his mainstay through the first part of the 21st century. Maybe he needed something like “The Dilemma” to try and rinse the rust off his comedic reins, but there’s a creakiness showing and that may be why the film’s being tossed into the movie-going dredgedom known as January.
The only mark of inventive direction here are a half-dozen visual tricks that embellish a character’s lies as representational truth. This first happens when Ronny fibs to Beth about the poison plant pockmarks he received while tumbling at the botanical gardens from witnessing Geneva’s infidelity (where he was escorted by Herbert Trimpy, a groundskeeper played by Clint Howard, Ron’s brother, whose has appeared in many of his sibling’s films). Ronny ad libs that the pustules on his face and arm were caused by “street plants,” which Howard playfully shows the audience in a few film frames of stretched truth.
Sadly, there’s an ominous ugliness to the venture as written by Allan Loeb, perhaps some of the leftover smarminess from his script for last year’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” So much anger in such a light comedy will not please audiences no matter what season this film finds itself struggling for an audience. In the middle of the movie, 3 DVDs are shown on the kitchen table in Ronny and Beth’s apartment: “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “Weird Science.” The best advice is to pick any of those over watching the Tums-popping “The Dilemma.”