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The Dilemma

Were The Dilemma made by someone other than Ron Howard, it might be easy to dismiss it as just another inert relationship comedy. But the presence of the Oscar-winning director's name atop the marquee begs further examination. Howard's artistic credentials may be a matter of some debate, but it's indisputable that he's got an impeccable eye for engaging, audience-friendly material, most recently demonstrated in his blockbuster adaptations of Dan Brown's pulp religio-thrillers The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. What, then, drew him to something as acetic and unfunny as The Dilemma?

The film stars Vince Vaughn as Ronny, an auto-industry entrepreneur tormented by the discovery that his best friend/business partner, Nick (Kevin James), is being cuckolded by his wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder). Proper protocol dictates that Ronny alert his friend of his wife's dalliance posthaste, but Nick's a highly nervous fellow, and he's currently immersed in frantic preparations for a make-or-break sales presentation on which the fate of his and Ronny's company, and the fortunes they've sunk into it, depends. Such a revelation might turn Nick's ulcerous stomach Vesuvial, wrecking their entire enterprise. Can Ronny risk such a calamity? It's quite the conundrum. Hence the title.

Vaughn's charm and improv skills are considerable, but he's never been able to carry a film on his shoulders, which is essentially what Howard asks him to do for much of The Dilemma's overlong running time. And Vaughn certainly gives it his best shot, laboring all too desperately to extract blood from the stone of Allan Loeb's script. He gets covered in sores, dances awkwardly with his male co-star, concocts ludicrous alibis for his suspicious fiancé-to-be (Jennifer Connelly), references Kurt Russell's inspirational speech from Miracle at least twice, and offers to spar comically with just about anyone within earshot. But there aren't many takers, and the laughs are few and far between.

This is a film that should have been made as a broad, irreverent farce by someone like Todd Phillips, or a dark, subversive dramedy by someone like Noah Baumbach. Howard himself appears inclined toward the former - there are copious sports metaphors and jokes about burning urination, butt tattoos, the emasculating effects of electric cars*, and lady wood** - but his comic instincts have atrophied since the days of Splash and Parenthood. Moreover, as the story lumbers along, he invests The Dilemma with a gravity undeserving of any film involving Kevin James.

The Dilemma does start to show signs of life at around the one-hour mark, when Ronny stakes himself outside the apartment of Nick's wife's lover, an inked-up rocker named Zip (a surprisingly funny Channing Tatum), in the hopes of capturing photographic evidence of the illicit affair. He gets caught, of course, and a chaotic struggle ensues involving two men who clearly have little experience with physical confrontation. It's by no means hilarious, and its comic absurdity clashes with the film's increasingly serious tone, but it at least provides a glimpse of the potential Howard et al saw in the project. At any rate, it arrives too late, because soon thereafter Howard must get to the business of resolving matters.

And resolving matters takes a surprisingly long time. There are arguments, an intervention, a separation, a number of damaging revelations, some fisticuffs, and at least a dozen utterances of "I'm sorry" involved in The Dilemma's prolonged denouement, an emotion-drenched span in which the film is at its most recognizably Howardian. Which is to say, very dramatic — and not very funny.

* Vaughn's character at one point actually refers to the vehicles as ''gay,'' which caused a (somewhat overblown) controversy when it was first heard in the film's trailer. It might qualify as the film's most interesting moment, if only for the palpable awkwardness of watching the character played by Queen Latifah, long the subject of speculation about her sexuality and something of a gay icon, absorb the comment with nary a wince.

** Which is pretty much exactly what you think it is. Incidentally, it's what Latifah's character claims to have gotten while listening to the aforementioned electric car speech. rated this film 2 stars.