Vince Vaughn as Ronny Valentine
Kevin James as Nick Brannen
Jennifer Connelly as Beth
Winona Ryder as Geneva
Channing Tatum as Zip
Queen Latifah as Susan Warner
Amy Morton as Diane Popovich
Chelcie Ross as Thomas Fern
Eduardo N. Martinez as Felix
Rance Howard as Burt
Clint Howard as Herbert Trimpy
Guy Van Swearingen as Saul
Troy West as Dr. Rosenstone
Laura Whyte as Sue
Grace Rex as Cousin Betty
Directed by Ron Howard
Vince Vaughn and Kevin James star as Ronny and Nick, two best friends and business partners who think they know everything about one another. Preparing to propose to his long-time girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) and in the midst of a make or break deal for his company, Ronny happens to catch Nick’s wife (Winona Ryder) cheating on him with another man (Channing Tatum). Torn between telling his friend or waiting, Ronny decides to gather more information on the deception, entering him in a downward spiral of secrets and lies.
The big reaction that’s going to come from “The Dilemma” is that the film shown in theaters is not the film being advertised. While television commercials showcase a simplistic “Grown Ups”-style farce set to the chords of Cee Lo’s muted “Forget You” and the one-sheet a bland buddy comedy with a grammatically questionable tagline (“Two best friends. Nothing could come between them… or could it?”), savvy filmgoers may have spotted the discord of “The Dilemma” being a Ron Howard film. In spite of one or two critically iffy entries on his resume, Howard is not in a position where he needs to make any film that he doesn’t want to. Thankfully, “The Dilemma” reveals itself as something both unexpected and wonderful, the first great film of 2011.
Shockingly dark, the focus of “The Dilemma” is less about cheap laughs and more about the absurd humor of existential loneliness. It’s a buddy comedy by way of Albert Camus. What’s even more impressive, the genre itself is played against the narrative in a manner uniquely suited to the its cast. Vince Vaughn plays a bit of an *sshole and Kevin James a chubby everyman. The audience identifies with both for their faults rather than anything to be admired. Literally opening with the question, “Can anyone ever truly know another individual?”, the film’s meta-narrative is sheer brilliance, becoming genre-amorphous to the point that the motives of the film itself are questioned and that the view only really feels comfortable in the broader stretches of dumb comedy. In this, not only is the audience asked to question their own personal relationships, they’re forced to consider that some of their strongest connections may exist in the shallowest way possible.
Howard turns out some top-level performances from his cast, managing to blend comic and dramatic talent. Reportedly the result of a great deal of on-set improvisation, the dialogue of “The Dilemma” is fluid and natural and enables a lot to happen underneath it. Jennifer Connelly is able to say with just a look that she doesn’t quite trust her boyfriend while the focus of the actual on-screen conversation falls somewhere else entirely. Though her key scene is a bit more direct, Ryder also shows off her impressive acting chops in a role that, too, balances the character against our pop perception of the actress.
Some of the supporting cast shoots for an admittedly less three-dimensional take, but Channing Tatum in particular manages a hilarious out-of-left-field performance as a drugged-up lunatic. Queen Latifah is, unfortunately, a bit less successful as an overly excitable automotive executive. In her case, there’s a strong sense that the character was meant to play a much a larger role and, edited to just a scene or two, feels unjustly shoehorned in.
Vaughn, though, is the real standout, marking his best performance since “Swingers.” Turning his “cool” persona into something that the character itself uses as a sales technique, the real Valentine is angry, paranoid and a bit neurotic. He’s a three-dimensional character trapped in a world where happiness can seemingly only be expressed in two.
Howard also goes for an unconventional approach to the film’s reveals in a way that manages to further the narrative. He uncovers twists and turns that, in lesser hands, would be bad storytelling but here drive home the point that we really don’t even know if we can trust our protagonist.
Though it could easily be likened to something from Woody Allen, the best comparison to be made for “The Dilemma” is probably to Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours”, as surely it is Howard’s equivalent, asking audiences to laugh at the hopeless absurdity of the universe and to find comfort in the fact that they can at least do that. It may aim for those interested in shallow wading, but moviegoers will find themselves diving headfirst into some surprisingly deep waters.
The Bottom Line:
Begging to be misunderstood (and, indeed, that’s the whole point), “The Dilemma” is a great, smart, original work and much, much more than meets the eye.