By Karl J. Paloucek
Some situations are so uncomfortable and ugly, it’s hard to find any levity in them whatsoever. And sometimes, the best thing that can happen to such a circumstance is to exploit it for comedic value. That, in essence, is what Ron Howard has done in his film The Dilemma, starring Vince Vaughn, Kevin James and Winona Ryder.
At the heart of the film is the longtime friendship of Ronny (Vaughn) and Nick (James), two entrepreneurs working on a dream of pitching their idea for an electric muscle car to the Chrysler Corporation. (Queen Latifah has a slight supporting role as a spunky Chrysler board member.) While Ronny has plenty of confidence in the boardroom, he’s less sure of himself when it comes to proposing to his girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly), handpicked for him by Nick and his wife, Geneva (Ryder). But when Ronny accidentally spies Geneva playing tonsil hockey with another man (Channing Tatum), he’s torn about whether or not to tell his friend — and between investigating his friends’ marriage and covering up what he knows, Ronny’s life begins to come apart.
It’s easy to see why a film like this did relatively cool business at the box office. How do you market what by all appearances should be a romantic comedy/buddy film that should appeal to the date-night crowd when at its core it tugs at difficult and dark issues arising from marriage gone wrong, like trust abused, emotional blackmail and deep-seated resentment? You don’t, but as for the viewer, you simply enjoy what’s there. The endearingly playful friendship of Vaughn’s and James’ characters, who pull pranks on each other — like Ronny getting Nick to hug a senior exec of a Chrysler competitor at the auto show while he sets up a meeting — complements the sickening, brutal emotional dimension of the story. And to Howard’s credit, The Dilemma never really gets too heavy at any given time.
Winona Ryder is evil as the conniving and manipulative Geneva, and although the “it takes two” lesson isn’t long forgotten, she plays the part so well that you really get to disliking her as the well-written narrative progresses. Everybody in the film acquits himself or herself well, actually — it just doesn’t make it any easier to watch, at times.
Howard has pulled off a solid piece of dark comedy in The Dilemma, drawn from a thousand formulaic romcoms that could have starred Jennifer Aniston and folding into it a sour undercurrent of human nature’s less-fine attributes. It’s a much more textured story, with more realistic depth, and the payoff is that the funny moments, when they occur, are genuinely funny.
“The Dilemma” is now showing on Video On Demand. Check your cable system for availability.
© 2011 Universal Studios. Credit: Universal Pictures