By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist January 12, 2011 at 3:07AM
Overrated screenwriter Allan Loeb is curiously one of the most in-demand writers in Hollywood right now, and we're beginning to understand why. His screenplays tend to sell high-concept work which makes executives and producers feel good about themselves, but the actual execution undermines whatever originality and vigor the original premise may have had, keeping things safe for mainstream audiences to embrace without thinking too much, which makes studio heads happy. But if you look closer, Allan Loeb seems to be writing the same script over and over with entire plots hanging on one character struggling to tell somebody the secret he's holding. Exhibit 1: "The Switch" spent nearly half its running time with Jason Bateman agonizing over whether or not to tell Jennifer Aniston that it's actually his sperm she used to have a child. Exhibit 2: In "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" Shia LaBeouf could have avoided a world of hurt he had just been honest with his girlfriend, Carey Mulligan, about what he was doing with her Dad. Which brings us to Exhibit 3: "The Dilemma." Once again, a character grapples for the majority of the film's running time with a should I?/shouldn't I? situation, in this case it's whether or not to tell his best friend that his wife is cheating on him. Yes, "The Dilemma" is another one of those movies where you're going to wait for somebody to stop acting like an idiot and do what most normal people would do without hesitation. It's pretty painful.
Ronny Valentine (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Brennan (Kevin James) are best friends who run a business developing environmentally friendly engines for cars and when the film opens, they're having dinner with their respective partners: girlfriend and chef Beth (Jennifer Connelly) and wife Geneva (Winona Ryder; apparently she doesn't work). In a grating opening scene -- one of many that drives the thematic thrust of the film like a sledgehammer over your head -- the couples discuss how long it takes to get to really know somebody. Hmm....is it possible that maybe they don't know each other as well as they think they do? Guess we'll just have to wait and see.
Ok, so the wait isn't that long, and as you already know from the trailers, Ronny finds out that Geneva is cheating on Nick with the much younger, more tattooed and more ripped Zip (Channing Tatum). Seems the obvious thing here is for Ronny to tell Nick right? Well, Allan Loeb reaches into his old tool bag and throws a couple of obstacles in his way. First, Nick has an ulcer that is bleeding profusely due to stress as he tries to perfect an engine they are looking to sell to Dodge on a tight deadline (Queen Latifah is their project supervisor; if you've see the "Lady Wood" joke in the trailer, you've pretty much seen her entire performance). Ronny then tries to threaten Geneva into coming clean, however she has another secret of her own (which we won't spoil here) that she threatens to spill if Nick finds out what she's up to.
You see the clever trick here? The film is sold as an infidelity comedy but Loeb manages to turn it into a Vince Vaughn-gets-into-increasingly-wackier-situations vehicle as he tries expose the affair, save his business and oh yeah, propose to his girlfriend. It's too bad because in the background of these characters are some real meaty issues that if handled properly could've add some heft to the proceedings. It turns out Ronny is a former gambling addict whose relapse two years ago nearly derailed things with Beth. Geneva reveals some dirt on Nick that makes her transgressions a bit more understandable given the situation. And even Beth has her own lingering trust issues that prevent her relationship with Ronny moving forward. But Loeb and director Ron Howard not only keep this stuff in the background, whenever it does crop up and seems like it will be legitimately explored, a lame gag usually follows to keep the proceedings light; in essence the film has a script that's afraid of itself.
We can't say the performers are too much at fault here as the material they're given to work with is tonally inconsistent. Vince Vaughn can sleepwalk through this kind of movies, doing a riff on his "Swingers" character from those halcyon days long-gone with increasingly diminished returns (though he gives a toast here that for a brief moment recalls Beanie from "Old School" -- if only). Kevin James, as the victim in all this, shows a bit of depth but not much more than the "serious moments" of his long-running sitcom "The King Of Queens"; we're also asked to buy into him being an engine builder nerd type which never quite sells. Jennifer Connelly is barely present so no surprise that Jennifer Garner, formerly slotted in the part, moved on. If there are any highlights in the film, they belong to Winona Ryder and Channing Tatum. The former turns in a fine performance in what is easily the most difficult character of the bunch: the one engaging in the affair. It's lot a more nuanced than a film like this deserves and the tense confrontation scene she shares in a diner with Vince Vaughn is a solitary bright light in the picture; it's too bad her chops are wasted. Meanwhile, Tatum is pretty funny as Zip, the tweaked out, oddly sensitive and somewhat manipulative chilled bro. He's wild and manic and frankly, unlike anything we've seen him in before and it's a pleasant surprise. Oh yeah, and it should be noted: the"electric cars are gay" scene? The sequence got some of the biggest laughs of the entire film from the audience we were with. Sorry GLAAD.
When it's all said and done, "The Dilemma" never really wants to face any of the myriad relationship issues and themes it throws around while masquerading as an intelligent adult comedy. As the film nears the finish line, it quickly becomes apparent that Loeb doesn't really want to deal with Nick and Geneva's relationship at all (she exits the film rather unceremoniously and Nick never takes ownership for his own issues that may have driven her away) and the focus re-orients on the bromance between Ronny and Nick, with a loud revving engine serving as an indicator of their testosterone-based friendship (no, we're not joking; the film's most emotional moment is a loud motor). We're not sure what drew Ron Howard to the material but all through the film we kept thinking this is territory that Judd Apatow would have have nailed, delivering both a quantity of laughs this film was sorely lacking, and dramatic moments organically born and honestly felt. There is really no dilemma here if you're headed to the movies this weekend: save yourself two hours and avoid this one. [C-]