Opening with a dinner conversation that discusses the very topic of knowing one’s friends and family, the film unravels the dynamic between smooth-talking salesman Ronny Valentine (Vaughn, Couples Retreat) and his scientist buddy Nick Brannen (James, Grown Ups). With Ronny’s girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly, Creation) and Nick’s wife Geneva (Winona Ryder, Black Swan) the pair make a pleasant foursome, with the former duo on the cusp of a more substantial commitment and the latter seemingly comfortable after many years of marriage. When Ronny spies Geneva in the arms of the much younger Zip (Channing Tatum, Dear John), his loyalty to his friend is stretched to the limit. The longer Ronny keeps his discovery a secret, the more the situation deteriorates, threatening to overcome his relationship with Nick on the personal and professional levels.
The film certainly presents a dilemma for the audience. The characters we are presented with in the early scenes of the film are genuinely likeable. While Vince Vaughn doesn’t deviate much from the like-him-or-hate-him cocky persona that he has been offering audiences since Swingers, his relationship with Jennifer Connolly in the film appears to be one of genuine affection. Similarly, what Vaughn’s character describes as the “hero couple” of James and Ryder actually works on-screen in a way that wouldn’t be suggested on paper. Yet having convinced audiences that we should care about the fate of these people, it takes an incredibly long time for anything to come along and challenge the warm and fuzzy feeling engendered by the opening moments. Indeed, it is a good 30 minutes or so before the dilemma of the title presents itself, and like all romantic (or in this case, bromantic) comedies, it takes a frustratingly long time to resolve itself.
The Dilemma never quite decides what it wants to be. While those same opening moments might lead audiences to believe that this is going to be a cut above the typical rom-com – especially when Ron Howard’s name floats by with all of the authority that Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind might suggest – it is not long before the schtick of Vaughn’s one-man stand-up routines peppered throughout key moments remind us of Wedding Crashers or Couples Retreat. Yet every other scene is one of schmaltz so severe that you may literally not know whether to laugh or cry. Just when the film appears to have made an emotional breakthrough, we are once again returned to a ‘bit’. The violence of the confrontation between Vaughn and Tatum could be referencing some of the latter’s roles to date, but it too feels like it belongs in another film altogether. Similarly, the entire sub-plot about the revolutionary engine that the boys are working on serves as an unnecessary distraction at best, but in reality stretches the already flimsy premise out to an incredibly bloated two-hour running time. Like the cars that Vaughn and James are working on, The Dilemma appears to have been assembled in a factory full of people who don’t seem to know they are working on the same movie, but have a rough idea of what one should look like.
For all of its schizophrenia, there are some genuinely amusing moments to The Dilemma. Queen Latifah’s contribution of “lady wood” to the cultural milieu may be the work of pure genius, even if it doesn’t gel with the rest of the film in any way whatsoever. Tatum’s emotional reaction to Vaughn’s harsh confrontation is similarly amusing, and some scenes around Vaughn’s attempts at a complicated cover story provide some crazy non sequiturs. Ryder may have also found a second-wind to her career playing emotionally disturbed psycho bitches, especially after her powerful performance in Black Swan, although like the rest of the cast, she may need to check her contract to see if there are any other studio obligations that must be fulfilled in rom-com form over the coming years. If The Dilemma is a failure, it is a borderline noble one, as if it had simply picked one of the many genres it skirted, it had all the makings of a good film.
The Dilemma was released on January 13, 2011 in Australia from Universal Pictures.