My dad says that critics see too many movies, so they’ve lost touch with what average filmgoers are looking for. That may be so, but I must report that on Tuesday night at the AMC Southdale Center 16, when Vince Vaughn’s character in The Dilemma decided that the best way to deal with his friend’s wife’s infidelity was to climb a tree outside her lover’s window and attempt to photograph the two of them in flagrante, the woman sitting next to me—who had waited in line for two hours to ensure a good seat at the pre-release screening—audibly emitted a weary sigh.
The Dilemma features numerous sports metaphors, so here’s one to describe the film itself. Some movies lose like a football team loses, by making a series of mistakes that leave them in poor field position to succeed. This movie, however, loses like a baseball team loses: again and again, Vaughn’s character has a chance to make a reasonable decision and salvage the film, but again and again, he strikes out. Eventually, the movie just runs out of innings.
Vaughn plays Ronny, best friend and business partner to Nick (Kevin James); the two of them have designed an electric engine that roars like a muscle car, and they’re down to the wire as they try to develop a working prototype in time to land a big contract. There’s never an convenient time to catch your friend’s wife smooching up on another man, but at this particularly inconvenient juncture, that is what Ronny sees Nick’s wife Geneva (Winona Ryder) doing with toy boy Zip (Channing Tatum). Therein lies the eponymous Dilemma: should Ronny tell Nick what he’s seen?
The larger dilemma, one left unresolved even after 118 minutes of running time, is screenwriter Allan Loeb’s apparent uncertainty about what he’s trying to do here. Is this a comedy? Ronny gets several intentionally inappropriate lines that even Vaughn looks embarrassed to be delivering, and they earned only scattered laughter in the full house on Tuesday night. Is it a character drama? Ronny is painted as a man who has issues being forthcoming, but in several pained scenes shared between Ronny and his girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly), the screenplay digs no deeper than the gambling addiction Ronny overcame two years ago. Is it a movie about morality? That one, actually, we can fairly well rule out; the screenplay so quickly and vigorously throws wrenches in the way of Ronny’s coming out with the secret that the question as to whether he should climb that tree hinges not on ethics but on whether Ronny’s 40-year-old knee is up to it. And what’s Queen Latifah doing there? Getting very well-paid, I hope.
Director Ron Howard tries—well, valiantly would probably be overstating it, but he does try—to win our affections with the magic touch he’s demonstrated in better films (that is, every one he’s made except maybe How the Grinch Stole Christmas), but he’s stranded here, and so are we.