The first major comedic release of 2011 is Ron Howard’s The Dilemma. Despite being marketed as a buddy film in the same vein as 2009’s I Love You, Man, audiences might be disappointed to find a much more solemn film than they were expecting.
The story centres around Ronny Valentine (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Brannen (Kevin James), two best friends who are also partners in an auto design firm in Chicago. Nick is the stressed mechanical genius who is happily married to Geneva (Winona Ryder), while Ronny, a recovering gambling addict, admires Nick and Geneva’s relationship as he’s been a confirmed bachelor since college, but appears to have found the love of his life in Beth (Jennifer Connelly).
As the film opens, the two couples are sharing dinner at a restaurant, having a conversation about honesty in relationships and whether or not you can truly know someone. This conversation blatantly foreshadows the film’s theme and morals, seemingly with the understanding that the audience has already seen the trailer and knows what to expect.
Nick and Ronny are on the verge of landing a huge deal with Chrysler, when Ronny stumbles upon a huge secret: Geneva has been cheating on Nick. This revelation sends Ronny on a quest to find out the whole truth behind Nick and Geneva’s relationship. Ronny cannot come to decide whether or not to tell Nick, who’s already being pushed to his mental and physical limits working on their Chrysler prototype. As he stalks both Nick and Geneva trying to figure out their dirty little secrets, his unexplained absences and the physical abuse he’s put through leaves his own relationship with Beth in jeopardy as she begins to suspect that he has started gambling again. The film inevitably becomes a cautionary tale to always be honest and forthright with your friends and lovers, as the secrets we keep only lead to drama somewhere down the road.
It is through the buildup to these dramatic moments that The Dilemma loses its footing as a comedy. In an attempt to make the big affair and Ronny’s internal struggle seem believable, the film contains so much dramatic build up that the comedic flow starts to suffer. I’m not saying that there are no funny moments, because there are: Vince Vaughn gets some laughs with his irreverent monologues (curiously, the controversial scene that was cut from the original theatrical trailer, in which Ronny awkwardly calls electric cars “totally gay,” was not cut from the theatrical release), and the bulk of the laughs come at the expense of Ronny, his weird obsession with Nick and Geneva’s relationship, and the humorous lies that he tells Beth.
Howard alleviates the serious subject matter and dramatic moments with crude humour involving “challenging urination” and quasi-slapstick comedy, but he just can’t find that perfect balance. The jokes themselves work well, but the heavy-handed rhetoric that drives the dramatic narrative causes the jokes to come in clusters, and there are moments during the 112-minute runtime where the dead silence in the theatre feels a bit awkward.
The on-screen chemistry between Vaughn and James is what saves this film from complete mediocrity. Both comedians have been around the block when it comes to these sorts of buddy comedies, and thanks to some witty screenwriting both are at the top of their game here. There is a running gag in which the two pals are only capable of using sports analogies to express their feelings and anxieties. This allows Ronny and Nick to open up to one another in a language that they are both most comfortable talking in. As a self-described sports fanatic, these jokes were spot-on and successfully play on the stereotype that men aren’t allowed to be honest and forthright about their emotions.
While I wouldn’t call The Dilemma a bad movie, the advertising strategy that Universal has used to market the film is inevitably going to leave some audiences disappointed. The trailer seems to imply that it’s going to be a comedy riot throughout, when in actual fact it’s more of a dramatic relationship story with hilarious moments inter-spliced around the unfolding drama. While this formula still keeps the viewer invested to see how everything plays out, you’re likely going to leave the theater feeling a tad misled.