Review: 'The Dilemma'

Since his breakout in "Swingers" and with the exception of oddball one-offs such as "Psycho" and "The Cell," Vince Vaughn spent most of his time playing VINCE VAUGHN, BABY!, a chatty, charismatic goof with a gift for physical comedy and a deadpan that balances out the swagger he tamed faster than anyone thought possible. Team him with regular cohorts such as Will Ferrell and a Wilson brother and he is a mighty fun guy to watch yak.

But Vaughn also is capable of a very different vibe. He's not quite built for gravitas (that would require a serious de-smirking) but does have a flair for common-man angst. Think of it as Trent from "Swingers" 15 years later. The clubs are long closed, the girls are gone, and this guy is stuck with himself.

He did his best in the underrated "The Break-Up," a dark film about the disintegration of a relationship mis-marketed as a comedy. He mines the same territory in "The Dilemma," and one suspects that it will face the same problems - there are funny moments, but this is as far from "Anchorman" as "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is from "Sleeper." (The opening dinner scene, not to mention the white-on-black credits, could have been lifted from any number of Woody Allen movies.)

Vaughn is businessman Ronny Valentine, the sales half of an engine-design startup he launched with Nick (Kevin James), his best friend and the company's chief engineer. They're trying to sell an electric car motor that sounds like a gas one to Detroit, and score a meeting with General Motors.

Meanwhile, Ronny, a former gambling addict, is toying with the idea of proposing to his girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly, still beautiful, still lifeless). He admires the relationship Nick and his wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder, aging gracefully), have and decides to pop the question at a botanical garden.

While he's scouting the location, he spies Geneva kissing a tattooed idiot named Zip (a surprisingly funny Channing Tatum, who looks so much like Nick Lachey - the ex-Mr. Jessica Simpson - that I thought it would turn into a plot point).

Does Ronny tell his best friend and destroy him or live with the knowledge and proceed as if nothing took place? It thickens the plot to have the friends as business partners - Nick is already a ball of nerves and their futures are on the line. The confrontation between Ronny and Geneva is stomach-turning. And Vaughn is credible as a guy to whom it never occurred that everybody lies.

Yet, the swaths of farce are so broad (this just in: climbing a tree to photograph lovers rarely ends well), I wondered if I was watching a remake of something French.

Even with a so-so script from Allan Loeb (responsible for the wretched "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"), it's not too much to assume that director Ron Howard should have nailed this one without breaking a sweat. Howard mined such a mix downright brilliantly in "Parenthood."

But Howard revisits comedy about once a decade - his last one was "EdTV" (1999), and most of his current résumé comprises expertly made blockbusters ("Apollo 13"), expertly made Oscar bait ("A Beautiful Mind," "Frost/Nixon") or, um, "The Da Vinci Code." Howard's chops seem rusty - he can still land a joke when he needs to, but "The Dilemma" never feels seamless or even all that confident. Ol' Vince can only do so much, and "The Dilemma" relies on him for almost everything. No wonder he ends up so frazzled.

"The Dilemma"

Our grade: B-

Genre: Comedy

Running Time: 111 min

MPAA rating: PG-13

Release Date: Jan 14, 2011