The Dilemma: Film Review

 A dark spirit pervades this Vince Vaughn/Kevin James buddy movie that stifles laughter.

There is nothing particularly funny about the scene that found its way into the trailer for Ron Howard's "The Dilemma" last fall where the word "gay" was used as a pejorative. As it turns out, this is all too typical of the movie itself, whose makers seems oblivious to the fact they're trying extra hard to find humor in things that just aren't funny.

Not that you can't make a comedy about marital dysfunction, a cheating spouse, dishonest best friend, addictive personality and violent rage. But it better be very dark or edging into farce. The Dilemma is so tone deaf to its themes that it thinks it's a light and slightly rude Vince Vaughn movie. It's not.

Nevertheless, The Dilemma is counting on -- indeed, its only box-office hope lies in -- Vaughn's mysterious alchemy with audiences that love to love him as an undeniable louse. Chalk one up for Vince if The Dilemma has any legs at all.

Howard and writer Allan Loeb cook up a kind of buddy movie with a disturbing undertow. Ronny (Vaughn) and Nick (Kevin James), best friends since college, form a motor engine design team. Ronny is the smarmy salesman -- he seals their deals with aggressive, often inappropriate guy humor -- while Nick is the "mad scientist" who does the actual work. They've been best buds so long that Nick has never really examined the basic inequality in all this.

But the crux of the matter, the "dilemma" if you will, is that Ronny discovers Nick's wife Geneva (Winona Ryder) is cheating on him like mad. But how does he break the news to his buddy, especially when a make-or-break business presentation is already eating new holes in Nick's stomach lining?

If you're in a Vince Vaughn movie, Ronny will do everything wrong, yet by the credit roll everyone will insist he did the right thing. What is interesting here, if anything is at all, is how Howard and Loeb sugarcoat the sheer nastiness that takes place.

When Vaughn slinks around like a snake in the grass in an arboretum to spy on Ryder and her highly tattooed inamorato, played by a luckless Channing Tatum, he develops a huge physiological reaction to its many poisonous plants. Are you laughing yet? When he climbs an apartment building to snap photos of the adulterous couple, he nearly forgets to take off the lens cap -- does that qualify as a joke any more? -- then gets into a vicious fight with the lover that borders on the psychotic on both sides. Don't guns and blowtorches tickle your funny bone?

Throw in Vaughn's gambling addiction, there only for a lame plot point, and you have a movie that raises serious issues only to trivialize them. At the point Vaughn's character tries to initiate a spiritual barter agreement with God -- on a bus stop covered with product placement, no less -- you want to page, from the Great Beyond, both Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards. Only they could make a comedy out of such dicey material.

The movie strands several talented actresses, who have nothing to do other than gape in disbelief at the male characters' incomprehensible stupidity. Along with Ryder, Jennifer Connelly, as Vaughn's unaware girlfriend, and Queen Latifah, in an unusually pointless roles as an automotive consultant, must find avenues into a story that essentially uses them for plot devices.

The film opens with a dinner scene where the buddies and their women actually discuss the movie's topic, which is: Can you ever say you really know someone, even your significant other? The movie's final answer, despite a forced feel-good ending, is no, your spouse or buddy is probably being dishonest with you in some fundamental way. But do Howard and Loeb even realize that's what they're saying?

Production values are slick but empty of purpose.