In ‘Dilemma,’ a buddy film with some mixed signals
It’s only January, but it’s not too early to wonder whether 2011 will provide a movie as lousy and deluded as “The Dilemma.’’ A comedy that seems terrified to acknowledge its darker, more sinister self, it’s like an overmedicated patient or an addict in dread of relapse. Vince Vaughn plays Ronny, a man recovering from a gambling problem. He discovers that Geneva (Winona Ryder) the wife of his best friend and business partner, is having an affair. Ronny confronts her, runs around Chicago spying on her, but can’t bring himself to tell Nick (Kevin James), the friend, because the movie would last 20 minutes and require a new title.
How about “The Flintstones’’? Critics and audiences have observed that many movies look like TV shows and that certain television series tend to be better produced than some movies. “The Dilemma’’ truly does feel like a live-action, extra-long variation on “The Flintstones,’’ which ran for six years in the 1960s on ABC. Vaughn is built like a sequoia. James is stout. Alongside each other, you notice how much Vaughn resembles Fred Flintstone and James looks like Barney Rubble (finally, someone who looks physically right with Kevin James!). Geneva makes a serviceable Betty, and Jennifer Connelly, as Ronny’s girlfriend, Beth, is a particularly breathtaking Wilma.
On “The Flintstones,’’ “The Dilemma’’ would be a series of misunderstandings that some square but clever writing would straighten out. All four characters would have a big laugh at the end. As written by Allan Loeb, “The Dilemma’’ doesn’t sound like a film deep or complex enough for a director to lose his way. But Ron Howard’s GPS malfunctions, anyway. He never decides on tones that complement each other, and the dissonance is jarring. In one scene, Vaughn and James are dancing with each other on the dance floor of a bar. In another, Vaughn loses his temper, and screams and spits on a residential sidewalk, his eyes and neck attaining a steroidal bulge, his voice breaking. Suddenly, he’s a wrestler on Total Nonstop Action. Is this a Fred Wilma should marry?
Vaughn, James, Ryder, and Connelly should also have a big laugh at the end. Well, the men do, but what they’re laughing about is actually what’s wrong with the movie. It’s what’s wrong with most Hollywood movies about male friendships. They’re unwittingly gay, and not gay in the way that Vaughn, in “The Dilemma,’’ says that electric cars are gay. They’re homosexual gay. Ronny’s angst over Geneva’s affair appears more about his love for Nick. When Nick talks to Ronny, James lowers his voice and stares deep into Vaughn’s eyes.
Ronny and Nick design electric-car motors and are trying, in a crass bit of product placement, to get Chrysler to buy them. When Nick revs a car engine in the movie’s latter going, he bites his lips and looks right at Ronny. He’s in heaven.
Just before that, they rough each other up, after a moment of emotional honesty. Watching James punch Vaughn, you might think about the moment in “Brokeback Mountain’’ in which Heath Ledger socks Jake Gyllenhaal once it’s clear their romantic summer is over. The violence is stranger here because we never see Nick talk to Geneva about feelings. He emotes only to Ronny.
Connelly applies earnest joy and real ache to her scenes. Whatever movie she thinks she’s making is the one I’d rather watch. Ryder is cast in her harshest light yet. It’s nice to have her back in the movies. But her return means adding to her string of risibly unflattering parts (“Star Trek,’’ “Black Swan’’), best perhaps to think fondly of, say, “Heathers’’ and be done. Suggesting that the women these two play in “The Dilemma’’ should be called “Wilma’’ and “Betty’’ feels generous since “Beard 1’’ and Beard 2’’ would work, too.
Elsewhere Vaughn tussles with Channing Tatum, as Geneva’s lover (Tatum’s transformation into a sweaty-voiced Wahlbergian pseudo-thug is complete) and puts up with Queen Latifah rhapsodizing about the phallic arousal some car engines stir in her. Vaughn makes a show out of discomfort with sexually assertive women. He spent “Wedding Crashers’’ virtually crying rape at the hands of Isla Fisher.
He seems happiest in the company of men. To that end, one scene in "The Dilemma" is a spree of mixed messages. Ronny leaps onto the ice at a Blackhawks game and ecstatically slides on his knees toward Nick, who, in a separate shot, is headed blissfully toward Ronny. Meanwhile, poor Beth looks on from the stands, a spectator forced to watch Fred and Barney have a gay old time.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.