I put up a snarky comment on the LNTAM Facebook page that nothing strikes fear into my heart so much as the words "A Comedy by Ron Howard." A little facetious, perhaps. I like Splash a lot and Parenthood may be my favorite of Howard's films. But the director of so many thunderously ponderous dramas does not have the necessary light touch,* at least these days, when it comes to directing comedy. Instead, he's dependent on the flip style of his stars (like Tom Hanks and Steve Martin) to rise above his heavy hand, and The Dilemma** has no such talent in evidence.
Not that Vince Vaughn and Kevin James don't try, but they're caught in a script so painful in its ramifications that you feel more sympathy for them than any mocking superiority, that might allow some amusement. It's a "Comedy-of-Errors" story, an "Incredible-Mess" scenario, and wants (wants, mind you) to say something about "the futility of good intentions" as well as "the value of honesty." But, then goes out of its way to show that one should just avert your eyes and walk away. The results, and the messages, are mixed.
Ronny Valentine (Vaughn) is a gambling addict in denial. His struggles with the problem have previously derailed a relationship with Beth (Jennifer Connelly), and they're coping with honesty and trust issues, because its easier for Ronny to bull-shit over embarrassing situations with elaborate fictions rather than just stating the truth. Its a helpful business strategy for him in his business with Nick Brannen (James) in automobile development—their current scheme is to give electric cars the same vibrating muscle power as a gas-guzzler. But, lately, he's been thinking up elaborate ways to pop the question to Beth. During one of his scouting forays to an ultimate proposal sight, he is appalled to find Nick's wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder, welcome back), canoodling with a young dude (Channing Tatum), something that a) affects both his personal and business relationship with his college buddy and b) strikes at the core of his fear of entering into marriage with Beth. Not to add stress to Nick's life, he chooses to add stress to his own by NOT saying anything (except to the duplicitous Geneva, who is ready to make life VERY uncomfortable for Ronny). This leads to a series of mis-understandings and down-right lies that makes everyone in Ronny's life think that he's back to his old tricks of hiding the truth to cover his gambling habits...and, indeed, by taking the dilemma by the horns, he is gambling with his life and relationships and losing...badly.
Hilarity is supposed to ensue, but nothing approaching a smile cracked my face. Ronny's habit of lying, fudging and obfuscating makes him an easy mark for any sort of suspicion and the situation he finds himself in is somewhat Kafkaesque. The former gambler can't win for losing, and the thought that kept pin-balling through my mind was "since the creative Hail-Mary's of over-promising to his potential clients is so integral to his success, how can he effectively keep his salesmanship from entering osmotically his personal life?" (Honestly, that's what I was thinking). I found it tragic more than comic, and wondered how any person with an addiction can hope to live out a normal life...even after overcoming it.
Pretty depressing thoughts to arise from a comedy.
Maybe such thoughts wouldn't have popped up if I'd laughed more.
The Dilemma is a Cable-Watcher.
* I'm omitting, of course, the bright spot of Ron Howard's recent comedy output, his shepherding of the TV-series "Arrested Development," whose crazed blunderbusting of the immaturity of the entitlement class was one of the better comedies of recent years.
** The most interesting aspect of The Dilemma is the spelling of its title. I'd always learned that it was spelled "D-I-L-E-M-N-A," and would frequently make a joke of too literally pronouncing it "dilem-na." But, these days spell-checks and my own (previously trusted) Random House Dictionary spells it with the double "m." However you spell it, it's a quandary.