“The Dilemma” is at heart a “bromance,” the currently fashionable tag for what used to be termed a “buddy flick.” It begins with two business partners and best friends Ronny (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Kevin James) pitching their product to some Chrysler execs. It ends with the two buds rolling together on the ice at a Chicago Blackhawks game. So far, so predictable, as are the obligatory sports metaphors, drunken scenes, and general goofing around.
In the midst of the tomfoolery, though, there’s a serious movie trying to get out, or at least an unusual one. Director Ron Howard, who has the credentials not to be involved in a raunchy comedy aimed at the college crowd, works with Allan Loeb’s surprisingly intelligent script and wrings some (equally surprising) subtle work from Vaughn and Winona Ryder, who plays Nick’s unapologetically unfaithful wife, Geneva. The movie pivots from the standard plot question—will 40ish Ronnie get up the cash and the nerve to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly)?--when Ronnie inadvertently discovers Geneva making out with a tattooed hunk named Zip (Channing Tatum). Stalking her and confronting her, he discovers the limits and limitations of friendship.
So the dilemma of the title is whether to tell his BF that his wife is cheating on him, thereby endangering Nick’s capacity to finish the engineering miracle they have committed to producing, or to dummy up and endanger their friendship when Nick finds out. It’s a clear no-win situation for Nick, and Vaughn’s portrayal of the agony Ronnie goes through involves us with its conviction. The melodrama is broken up by some nice comic moments. An intervention (think 12-Step programs) for reformed gambler Ronnie generates some wonderfully complex humor, much of which will likely sail over the heads of the target audience. An awkwardly inappropriate anniversary party speech is both embarrassing and funny. Even the fight scenes are clearly meant to include some laughs.
Vaughn demonstrates some acting chops not previously revealed, and Ryder pulls the movie into some interesting territory. Near the beginning, her brittle, bitchy character poses the question about how well we can really know another person, and then shows through her duplicity the impossibility of that kind of knowledge. But there is also some opacity to Nick’s character, some skeletons in his closet, as the screenplay slowly reveals. The jokes that punctuate these revelations set off the seriousness of hiding the truth from those you love.
James and Connelly don’t have much to do, just as well in the former’s case, too bad in the latter. Tatum does a nice turn as a secret lover who is by turns violent and wimpy. Queen Latifah does a cameo whose point in the story just mystifies me.
The movie’s previews imply that the goings on will be hilarious, if standard fare, and for the most part they are. But there are enough original moments to make it worth a look see, if only to escape the cold. It’s rated “PG-13” for mature thematic elements including some sexual content. I’m guessing that most preteens will not get it, the sometimes adolescent behavior of the principals notwithstanding.