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Movie Review: 'The Dilemma'

Vince Vaughn navigates an adult world under Ron Howard's direction as the actor's good-time character grows up.

January 14, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

The dilemma for "The Dilemma," the new Vince Vaughn comedy, is how to tackle some serious business seriously — telling your best friend that his wife is cheating — without losing the funny business of the glib good-time guy that has kept fans flocking to Vaughn's films for years.

Although the seriocomic mash-up in the hands of director Ron Howard is not without its issues, this is a time when bait and switch is not a bad idea. It's not really about the laughs, or even the drama. What "The Dilemma" ultimately does best is create a platform for Vaughn to drag that iconic character of his into full-blown adulthood. (No, the inanely grating "Couples Retreat" doesn't count.) Grown-up is a good look on Vaughn.

From the first scene, it's clear that screenwriter Allan Loeb ("Things We Lost in the Fire," "The Switch") has created a far more adult world than we're used to seeing Vaughn navigate. Rather than "Old School" issues like how many kegs does a frat party need, or "Wedding Crasher" tips on cruising for quickies, here the discussion over dinner leans toward the philosophical, with the guys wearing suits and sampling the wine like they could actually tell if it was a decent vintage.

The movie is set in white-collar Chicago, a nice change from the more typical South-side grit, with cinematographer Salvatore Totino (" Frost/Nixon," " Cinderella Man") making liberal use of the city's distinctive architecture and a lot of light to build a beautiful backdrop. The complications swirl around two close couples — Vaughn's Ronny and his girlfriend and gourmet chef, Beth ( Jennifer Connelly), and his best friend and business partner Nick ( Kevin James) and his wife, Geneva ( Winona Ryder).

The guys specialize in automotive design, a high-end boutique business with Nick the engineering genius (far enough from the "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" loveable dunces he usually does to feel fresh) and Ronny the marketing whiz, with James' and Vaughn's sensibilities a good match. They're on the cusp of getting the break of a lifetime from a Motor City heavyweight, and Ronny is just as close to proposing to Beth in hopes of building a long-term life that looks a lot like Nick and Geneva's. The stakes and the tension couldn't be higher.

But in a botanical garden as lovely and dangerous as Eden, Ronny's notions about life and love are upended when he spots Geneva secretly smooching a tattooed hottie named Zip ( Channing Tatum). Just what to do about his discovery is unclear and most of the film is fueled by the comedy and the drama of Ronny figuring out how and when to tell Nick that his 20-year-marriage is apparently a sham.

Now this is the tough part — for Ronny and the director, who's returning to comedy after decades of more dramatic fare from critical highs that include "Frost/Nixon" and "A Beautiful Mind" to the lows of "The Da Vinci Code" and its "Angels & Demons" follow. Drenched as it is in relationship issues, the comedy in "The Dilemma" turns out to be a complicated beast, requiring more layers than the sentimental romances of Howard's early hits like "Splash" and "Cocoon." While he hits most of the darker notes, the filmmaker proves too indulgent with the lighter riffs, when a little restraint would have made for a better film.

Most of the humor is of the slapstick sort as Ronny starts stalking Zip and Geneva to get incontrovertible proof of the affair. That basically involves an expensive camera, a couple of fights, a nasty rash, a few felonies and the real possibility that Zip is a nut-job.

The laughs get dicier on the business side as Ronny and Nick pitch the Detroit biggies their idea of a hybrid that melds muscle-car vroom with electric eco-sensibility. There were early protests about a punch line referring to electric cars as "gay," which after seeing the film seems code for "girlie," so maybe it was a flip of the coin on what constituency to risk offending. Meanwhile, a few gratuitous blue lines that simply don't pay off chip away at the bankable charm of Queen Latifah as the exec overseeing their project.

What the filmmakers do get right are the face-offs between Geneva and Ronny. Sometimes it's just a knowing look across a crowded room, but they turn wonderfully acerbic when they're sparring nose to nose. Watching Geneva dismantle Ronny's righteous indignation — with Ryder wielding words like weapons and Vaughn's body visibly absorbing each blow — becomes a turning point not just for the film, but for the actor. It's as if everyone realizes in that moment just what is really on the line and everything resonates more deeply in its wake.

There were hints of the more versatile actor Vaughn might become a few years ago in "The Break Up" opposite Jennifer Aniston. "The Dilemma" is yet another step in that direction, and, perhaps, the end of an era as well. Now that the good-time guy has walked around in big boy shoes, I'm not sure there's any way of going back.

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