Ronny (Vince Vaughn) is facing a dilemma. He's always admired the happy marriage of his best friend and business partner, Nick (Kevin James). Nick and his wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder), are the standard to which Ronny aspires as he considers proposing to his girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly). But he's just inadvertently caught Geneva kissing another man (Channing Tatum). He wants to tell Nick what he's seen immediately, but his friend is so stressed in the wake of a huge professional deadline that Ronny can't quite bring himself to deliver the horrible news. What should he do?

Normally stellar director Ron Howard (Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, Parenthood) spends 150 wildly uneven minutes exploring the answer to that question in a film that ranges from lighthearted bromance to dark psychodrama and never really hits its stride. When Ronny decides to play amateur detective in an effort to both secure evidence of Geneva's infidelity and also to understand where his friends' marriage went wrong, his life begins to quickly unravel. Unfortunately, due to an unfocused and implausible script, so does the movie.

Kevin James as Nick, Vince Vaughn as Ronny

Kevin James as Nick, Vince Vaughn as Ronny

The Dilemma begins with promise. Ronny, Beth, Nick and Geneva are out on a double date, and the two couples are exhibiting the chemistry of old, good friends and bandying about a provocative question: How well can you really know anyone? Besides setting up the film's major theme nicely, the opening frames establish Ronny and Nick's best-buds-since-college bond, evidenced in their goofily synchronized dance moves, secret verbal guy code, and overt I've-got-your-back loyalty. The scene is crisp—funny but nuanced—teasing the viewer with all the potential one would expect from the cast and director.

But before long, the film begins to falter. Though the story is entertaining and sporadically funny, and the cast is charismatic (especially Vaughn, who applies himself whole-heartedly to the diverse range of emotional territory asked of him), The Dilemma just doesn't hang together very well. Part of the problem is laziness in detail. Ronny and Nick have a business building high-tech car engines, and they are working on a massive deal with Dodge to create electric-engine muscle cars. I don't know anything about automotives, but everything the script asks these characters to say sounds fake, from the unconvincing technical talk at their Engine Building Lab to their preposterous pitch to Chrysler executives. The opening line of Ronny's presentation—"Electric cars are gay"— has sparked some cultural controversy; it's also just not very feasible as a legitimate appeal to an automotive giant.

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Geneva (Winona Ryder) and Beth (Jennifer Connelly) with their significant others

Geneva (Winona Ryder) and Beth (Jennifer Connelly) with their significant others

Equally hard to swallow is Queen Latifah's character, Susan Warner, a Chrysler consultant assigned to work with the guys. Susan speaks exclusively in wildly enthusiastic and oddly sexualized non-sequiturs; she is so divergent from the rest of the corporate suits that it's almost impossible to believe they would hire her. And weirdly, although she is heavily featured in the trailer, her character appears so seldomly and sporadically one wonders if some important pieces got lost in editing.

Geneva's boyfriend, the extensively tattooed and spacey Zip (Tatum), is an equally confusing character, whose erratic and inconsistent behavior is only partially (and again, lazily) explained by his drug use. He is successfully mined for laughs and action, but he doesn't really make sense.

Queen Latifah as Dana

Queen Latifah as Dana

Many other aspects of the plot strain credibility. Much of the comedy (and even more of the drama) arises from indefensible and illogical decisions that Ronny, an otherwise seemingly intelligent man, keeps making. His conviction that he must keep his situation secret from his long-suffering and increasingly confused girlfriend is particularly unsupported. One begins to suspect that screenwriter Allen Loeb is counting on his audience to simply be good sports and go along with whatever half-developed plot twists are required to get us to his intended climax.

The Dilemma demands even more flexibility and patience of its audience by varying wildly in tone, moving between slapstick, goofball comedy, and heavy melodrama with an unsteady hand. The film wants to be feel-good and darkly cynical at the same time, placing itself at cross purposes. Director Howard has certainly successfully mined dysfunctional family dynamics for both laughs and pathos before (Parenthood comes to mind), but here the writing translates more confused than layered. The film often seems as uncertain as its protagonist.

Perhaps most problematically, The Dilemma aims to chart some fairly challenging ethical territory with a rather confused moral compass. More than one character in the story has been unfaithful, but certain transgressions are perceived as much worse than others for no apparent or justifiable reason. Although I respect the filmmakers for attempting to probe some deeper waters, they seem to have gotten in over their heads.

Director Ron Howard on the set

Director Ron Howard on the set

The Dilemma is not without laughs, and it's not without heart. A scene in which a distraught Ronny prays for help is surprisingly moving and sincere. And despite the excruciating quality of some Three's Company-esque mix-ups and meltdowns, the cast manages to keep the film watchable and engaging. As long as the viewer doesn't dwell too long on the "how" or the "why" of the plot, the movie offers a reasonable ride. The trouble is, The Dilemma wants, quite commendably, to go someplace deeper and more satisfying. It just takes a few too many shortcuts—and hairpin turns—getting there.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Ronny and Geneva shared a very old secret. Was it wrong of them to keep it from Nick?
  2. Was Nick's infidelity the same as Geneva's? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think Nick and Geneva got back together? Do you think they could?
  4. Was Ronny's prayer answered?
  5. Did you think Ronny deserved the blame he took from Nick at the end of the movie? Why or why not?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Dilemma is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements involving sexual content. The film contains frequent profanity and is quite focused on sexual situations, which are sometimes portrayed with partial nudity (including a close-up of a naked male rear end). The film tackles moral issues from a seemingly sincere but confused framework.

The Dilemma
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for mature thematic elements involving sexual content)
Directed By
Ron Howard
Run Time
1 hour 51 minutes
Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Winona Ryder
Theatre Release
January 14, 2011 by Universal Studios
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