Unwelcome drama

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

Unexpectedly sour, The Dilemma barely qualifies as a comedy.

Though it offers plenty of larky scenes, such as Vince Vaughn and Kevin James man-dancing together at the Green Mill (the popular Chicago jazz club) or taking in a Blackhawks game, it’s darker than any of the ads suggest. Audiences deserve the truth going into director Ron Howard’s film, which is fundamentally misdirected — or rather, directed in a style to be named later — and all over the place in a way Howard’s films rarely are.

It’s a Vaughn vehicle foremost, and like the recent Adam Sandler hit Grown Ups, The Dilemma allows the Vaughn character to treat everyone around him like an inferior species, swan around with a smirk and get the last word in every sequence. Chicago is full of guys like Vaughn, albeit shorter. You know: sports-mad, agreeably insensitive, sweet-underneath lugs, all wishing their Vince Vaughn patter will somehow end up charming the likes of Jennifer Aniston.

Vaughn and co-star Kevin James play Ronny and Nick, best pals and business partners in a Chicago engine-design firm. Ronny is dating a chef ( Jennifer Connelly) who has seen Ronny through his gambling addiction and is cool, we’re told, because she wears a Cubs jersey. Nick, insecure and ulcer-prone, is married to live wire Geneva (Winona Ryder, who never needs much encouragement in the overacting live-wire direction) whom Vaughn’s character, Ronny, once slept with in college. By accident, Ronny spies Geneva making out with an apparent paramour (Channing Tatum, playing somebody who’s either an idiot, psychotic, a puppy dog or something else entirely; hard to say). What to do about it?

Allan Loeb’s screenplay sets itself up as a farce but almost instantly begins collapsing into therapy. As Ronny wrestles with the decision to tell Nick about his wife’s infidelity, endangering their progress on a make-or-break engine-design project, Loeb’s script takes the easy way out, demonizing Ryder’s character in such a way that an 11th-hour attempt at re-humanizing her does not work. The jokes, when and where they can be found, are puerile, and continually give Vaughn the movie star catbird seat. Loeb can write; I enjoyed a lot of his work on Things We Lost in the Fire, Wall Street 2 and even the unpopular rom-com The Switch. Here, in flashes, you see the movie that should have been: Vaughn handles a key, wry moment (Ronny’s ill-advised anniversary toast to his lover’s parents) with the panache he’s known for. Elsewhere, though, it’s hard even to track the intentions of a given scene, and Howard’s indecisive pacing clarifies little.

The movie was originally called Cheaters, which hints at the story’s notion that we all harbor secrets in a relationship, some of them white lies, some of them toxic. It’s a fine starting point for a lively, challenging commercial comedy. I hope someone makes it.

— MCT, Tribune Media Service