Directed by the Oscar-winning Ron Howard, The Dilemma has more on its mind than your typical romantic comedy. Aiming to delve into themes relating to how well people know each other and to what extent couples keep secrets from one another (among other queries), the film tries its hardest to be more than a forgettable diversion, but, with introspective themes not explored to their fullest potential, the film comes up short. The Dilemma also suffers from an identity dilemma: is it a drama or a light-hearted romantic comedy? With the poster implying a comedy and with trailers advertising the picture as fluffy fun, it’s somewhat surprising that the film is in fact a dodgy dramedy unable to find the right tonal balance. It’s interesting to see director Howard attempting to imbue his film with ultimately unfulfilled gravitas, but The Dilemma‘s mix of hit-and-miss comedy and lackadaisical drama is astonishingly inept.
Business partners and best friends since college, Ronny (Vaughn) and Nick (James) are on the eve of closing an incredibly lucrative business deal with Dodge. Stress levels are high for the pair, though, with the deal putting Nick’s engineering genius to the test and with Ronny looking to find the right time and place to propose to his long-time girlfriend Beth (Connelly). Making matters worse is that Ronny catches Nick’s wife Geneva (Ryder) carrying on an affair with the handsome, vapid Zip (Tatum). Ronny subsequently becomes faced with a major dilemma: tell Nick and risk the news affecting his engineering performance, or keep quiet and hope it blows over. Geneva temporarily silences Ronny by a threat of blackmail, but he cannot help but dig deeper into his friends’ personal lives.
On top of its other sins, The Dilemma faces a tremendous dilemma in its structuring. (Sorry to use the pun again…) The picture begins with promise and potential, taking its time to develop the central characters and all of their respective conflicts. Yet, it takes far too long for the conflicts to actually lead somewhere. Padded out with nonsensical filling and burdened by extreme meandering, the film clocks in at a whopping 110 minutes, but it doesn’t begin to dive into the nitty gritty until the 90-minute mark, leaving insufficient time for a patient, thoughtful narrative resolution. The resolution thus feels rushed and painfully generic, not to mention the film as a whole feels fundamentally incomplete, resulting in a bad aftertaste.
One question lingers from the beginning: is the film a drama with comedic elements, or a comedy with dramatic elements? It’s frankly hard to categorise The Dilemma since it appears that the film itself does not know what it wants to be. The tone is kept predominantly light and at times outright slapstick until the final act, at which point the potent drama is densely lathered on to the point of utter saturation. With the humour dropped entirely in the third act, Howard and screenwriter Allan Loeb (The Switch, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) try to untangle the conflict with an intricate examination of the feeble nature of trust. However, the unnecessarily lengthy runtime left the filmmakers struggling to wrap up the film as quickly as possible, scrambling to concoct a conventional conclusion for a film that’s otherwise unconventional and inventive.
Predictably, Vince Vaughn and Kevin James stuck to close variations of their usual shtick. Nevertheless, Vaughn is notably terrific here since he was on solid ground that was well-suited for his trademark screen persona. After a few depressingly unfunny comedies that restrained his comic mojo (Couples Retreat, Four Holidays), The Dilemma allows Vaughn to finally let loose yet again, bouncing off the game supporting cast and firing off some great one-liners. In particular, the star hits a number of comedic home runs in a rather Vaughn-esque scene as Ronny destroys an anniversary dinner for Beth’s parents with an uncomfortable yet hilarious speech. Also making an impression is Channing Tatum, who clearly relished the opportunity to play what would otherwise amount to a mere paycheque role. Meanwhile, Winona Ryder continues her unlikely comeback (kick-started by Black Swan) in the role of Geneva. It would have been easy to turn Geneva into a shallow villain, but Ryder steals scenes left, right and centre, adding dimension and genuine emotional depth to her character. Jennifer Connelly is also surprisingly strong, while Queen Latifah is frequently chuckle-worthy as a bawdy automotive executive.
Ultimately, The Dilemma would most likely have worked better if it was designed as an outright farce. With comic actors like Vaughn and James carrying out their usual routines, it feels like such a waste to use them for a film that uneasily alternates between comedy and hyperbolic melodrama. Then again, Connelly and Ryder are in straight-up dramatic mode, further contributing to the uneasy melding of different styles. When all is said and done, The Dilemma will likely be looked upon as a minor blip on the radar screen that is Ron Howard’s directing career. It’s not awful since it remains for the most part enjoyable and it has its charms, yet the film had the potential to be so much more.