The Dilemma

It takes a special kind of mainstream mush to waste Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Winona Ryder, Jennifer Connelly and your money all at once. Screenwriter Alan Loeb and director Ron Howard have found the formula. They’ve made a movie so totally and resolutely mediocre that it’s almost impressive.

It’s all there in the trailer. Even the sense that seeing the trailer obviates seeing the whole film is there in the trailer.

But OK, here we go. The bromance between Ronny (Vaughn) and Nick (James) began some 20 years ago when they were college. Now they’re business partners, starting up something to do with engines that can help make electric cars sound less “gay.” That’s Ronny’s pitch, anyway. He’s the sales guy; Nick makes the engines.

Nick has a wife, Geneva (Ryder). Ronny has a girlfriend, Beth (Connelly). Ronny admires Nick and Geneva’s marriage, but can’t quite bring himself to propose to Beth. Over a casual double-date dinner, Ronny wonders with exaggerated anxiety whether you can ever really know anyone.

Certainly you can’t ever really know the characters in “The Dilemma,” as they barely even exist. But you can at least know their plot-point characteristics. For instance, Ronny soon discovers Geneva having an affair, but doesn’t know if or how he should tell Nick.

That would be the dilemma.

Also, Ronny and Geneva have a smidge of history that Nick doesn’t know about. And Ronny has a gambling addiction. And Nick has an ulcer. And Channing Tatum has tattoos, and Queen Latifah has “lady wood.” In other words, what should escalate as a series of comic and poignant and at least barely plausible complications instead just becomes a weird and wearisome degeneration. There’s some overheated talk about honesty, and then some overheated slapstick.

It’s been more than a decade since Howard’s last (intentional) comedy. Having since then delineated various conspiracies — including the rococo fictions of Dan Brown and Richard Nixon — Howard now is ready to explore the suspicious sitcom-promulgated attractiveness of doughy middle-aged men to slender, pretty women. The truth, as we always suspected, is that the women haven’t happily settled.

So the least false thing about “The Dilemma” is its operational notion that Channing Tatum might be more appealing than Kevin James, if only barely. Not that this explains or makes up for all the mugging Tatum does to prove it.

The others do their share of mugging too, of course — particularly Vaughn, putting himself through the usual paces of wacky humiliation. The movie is mostly his, and he’s really all it’s got. His way of setting up other actors for laughs still seems generous, if that word applies to a film whose motives can only be mercenary, and whose comic timing is so oddly strained. It’s not wholly unfunny. Just unnecessary.

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