Jan 24, 2011

The Dilemma [12A]

Dir: Ron Howard
The problem with The Dilemma isn't so much that it's an awful movie (it's not) as it is a confused one. It's having an identity crisis; is it a knockabout comedy featuring Vince Vaughn getting injured as he tries to decide whether to tell his best friend (Kevin James) that his wife (Winona Ryder) is having an affair or is it a drama about the manipulative Ryder putting Vaughn in a situation where, if he tells James what he's seen, it could destroy their friendship? Ultimately the film can't decide which of these things to be, and the six of one, half a dozen of the other, approach hobbles what might have been a much more interesting film.

The two halves of the central cast each seem to be acting in separate films. For me it was Ryder and Connelly's part; the dramatic half, that came off better. Connelly, of course, has long been a well rated actress, and here she brings her talent to bear on a part that, in the hands of a lesser actress, could have been completely two-dimensional. The role of Vaughn's long term girlfriend is seriously underdeveloped, but Connelly commits to it, and has chemistry with Vaughn, there's a straightforward sincerity about both character and performance which is entirely appealing. Winona Ryder is good too, better than in the staggeringly overrated Black Swan, which contains possibly the worst performance she's ever given. There's a pivotal scene in a diner in which she tells Vaughn that, if he tells his friend about her affair that she'll say that Vaughn made a pass at her, and reveal the one night stand they had 20 years ago, which they have so far kept a secret. Ryder's excellent here, the whole scene turns on her ability to make Vaughn, and us, believe that her husband will buy this story, and she does, effortlessly.

I wish that the film had developed this dramatic side a great deal more, because the subject matter is serious and there are flashes here of an interesting treatment of these issues.

However, this isn't a review of the film I wish I'd seen, it's a review of the film I actually saw. Unfortunately the other half of The Dilemma, mainly the scenes that revolve around Vaughn and James, is an utterly misconceived knockabout comedy, which ring false and unfunny at every turn. Vaughn, James and director Ron Howard work hard in the pursuit of laughs, squashing the prospect of them in the process. Comedy needs to be breezy and fleet of foot, it needs to feel as if it's only funny by accident. The Dilemma smacks of effort at every comic turn, as if it's trying desperately to shoehorn in the 'zany' bits, the punchlines a hammer being repeatedly brought down on a square peg which it is attempting to pound into a round hole. Watching the 'funny' half of the movie feels not only like you're watching a different film, edited into the drama by mistake, but more damagingly you're not laughing, for all the effort the jokes just feel so out of place that they miss the mark (few more so than Queen Latifah's inexplicable extended cameo).

This isn't to say that the dramatic side of the film entirely works. Like all romantic, or bromantic, comedies, it has to create a conflict in the third act, and like most of them it fails to do so in a remotely convincing way. Vaughn and James seldom convince as best friends of many years, and the plot gives them little help in the forced scenes of the third act, which allow both to come off as petulant overgrown children rather than adults who have dealt for twenty years with the ups and downs of friendship. With a rewrite (and, frankly, some different casting in the male leads) The Dilemma could have been an interesting character drama, instead it's a confused mess of a movie, albeit one with a couple of good performances and flashes of the better film it might have been.

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