Monday, January 24, 2011

Funny Business: THE DILEMMA


The funniest thing about The Dilemma is that, despite being sold as director Ron Howard’s return to comedy, it’s not very funny. In fact, every time it tries to be funny in a broad, silly way, it falls embarrassingly flat. The comedy seems jammed up into the corners of a somewhat serious drama. If it weren’t for all the straining for laughs in Allan Loeb’s screenplay, this could be a much better film.

It stars Vince Vaughn as a man who plans on proposing to his longtime girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly), following the advice of his happily married best friend (Kevin James). As he scopes out the perfect spot to pop the question, a lovely botanical garden, he notices his friend’s wife (Winona Ryder) making out with some younger guy (Channing Tatum). He takes it upon himself to learn more and ends up sneaking around town peeping in windows and trying desperately to avoid revealing anything before he’s sure of all the facts.

Now saddled with secrets and questions, he squirms about and ends up making each and every social situation more and more difficult as he struggles under the pressure of being the only person in the room tuned in to all of the nasty subtext. So many comedies draw their laughs from the unspoken comedic tensions between characters, that it’s strange, but not entirely unpleasant, to see one throw away the comedy to focus solely on the tension.

After wading through deadly dull scenes of formulaic comedy windup, especially a nonstarter of a subplot involving an awfully miscalculated use of Queen Latifah, things get interesting. For the majority of its runtime, the film functions well as a compelling, wild-eyed melodrama, a darkly depressing look into seemingly normal relationships with deep dysfunction hidden just below the surface. Funnily enough, there are some genuine laughs found amidst the pleasurably agonizing drama in sequences of acute social discomfort. As the web of secrets that supports these characters’ interactions grows more prominent, the romances and friendships involved threaten to collapse altogether.

And then, the movie deflates the tension quickly and clumsily. Tension falls away in favor of a queasily pat and tonally odd ending that feels like it belongs to the opening attempts at comedy instead of the moments it follows. It’s a movie that recovers very nicely from an opening stumble only to fall back into the same traps by the end.

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