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Review: The Dilemma

Ron Howard’s latest movie fails to live up to potential

The Dilemma

Winona Ryder and Kevin James in The Dilemma. — Photo by Charles S. Hodes/Universal Pictures/ Everett Collection

  

Rated PG-13
Runtime: 118 mins.

En español  |  It’s frustrating when you see what a filmmaker is attempting to do, and you admire him for giving it a shot, but in the end you have to let it go with a “Nice try.”

Such is the case with The Dilemma, a curious film from the great Ron Howard that casts two of the funniest men in the movies in a sad domestic drama. Played straight, The Dilemma could be a knuckle-whitening study of suspicion and paranoia. Played for laughs, it could be a hysterical exercise in mistaken motives and quirky manners. But in what can only be described as a misguided attempt at alchemy, Howard has poured all those elements into a vast cinematic Mixmaster in an effort, far as I can tell, to get us to laugh and cry at the same time.

His stars would seem to be up to the task: Both Vince Vaughn and Kevin James are second to none when it comes to conjuring up big laughs while giving glimpses of melancholia lurking just below their ample surfaces. They play middle-aged pals in Chicago who’ve been toiling at the fringes of the auto industry ever since college, developing engine innovations that have somehow failed to enrich them. Now, though, they’ve come up with their ultimate brainstorm: an audio mechanism that makes an electric car roar and rumble with all the decibel power of that muscle car the bad boy down the street used to drive.

Ronny (Vaughn) is the smooth-talking salesman of the pair, and Nick (James) is the brains of the operation. As the deadline for their project approaches, Nick requires absolute insulation from all distractions — which becomes something of a complication for Ronny after he happens to see Nick’s wife, (Winona Ryder), making out with her boyfriend among the bushes at the Garfield Park Conservatory. Thus the titular dilemma: Should Ronny tell Nick right away, ruin his life and, in the process, the project they’re both depending on? Or should he let things ride for just a little longer? Of course, the secrets keep piling up — everyone has one, it seems, even Ronny’s picture-perfect girlfriend, (Jennifer Connelly). Soon, just like that howling work of fakery under the electric car’s hood, the truth is screaming to be revealed.

Moments of The Dilemma are truly lovely: The friendship of the two guys unfolds in some very nicely written, often funny set pieces, and Vaughn, in a lonely scene under a streetlight, reveals himself to be a thoughtfully resourceful actor. Director Howard deserves all the credit in the world for trying something different, on a theme that is clearly important to him. Trouble is, faced with the dilemma of blending the ingredients of comedy and drama, he came up not with a nice smooth sorbet, but with something more like rocky road.

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