Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 20, 2011 10:49 am 
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Winona Ryder, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, and Vince Vaughan in The Dilemma

Lovable mess

There's no secret about the premise. The Dilemma concerns a man who discovers his best friend's wife is having an affair. The movie is very watchable, and a little overstuffed in more ways than one, not quite a success, not really consistent, yet winning and good-hearted. The two leads, Vince Vaughan and Kevin James, have the air of former athletes gone a bit to seed. Both carry the weight of a lot of good eating and drinking. And there's over-stuffing in the plot and the tone. Ronny (Vaughan) is being urged by best friend Nick (James) to pop the question to main squeeze Beth (Jennifer Connelly), which he's agonizing over, and the two men are partners facing the challenge of their lives. They have a matter of days to prove to Dodge that Nick can design a hybrid car that's a remake of a sexy, noisy Seventies muscle car.

Ronny can't decide what to do. But can Ron Howard or the writer, Allen Loeb? At times this is a romantic thriller, with the disloyal wife Geneva (Winona Ryder) threatening Ronny and her tattooed young paramour Zed (Channing Tatum) more than ready to point guns and smash vintage cars. But the violence and the moral dilemmas constantly shift over to comedy, or is it the other way around? Anyhow, most of the way it doesn't matter. Why? The simple answer is Vince Vaughan. Vaughan doesn't get to do his standard motormouth shtick this time. But he's nearly always on camera and nearly always talking. Sometimes there's obviously too much of that talking, as when he uses a wedding anniversary toast to his future in-laws as pretext for a long, insinuating speech about the importance of honesty, directed transparently at Geneva. Some plot twist are so much from left field you don't know what to do with them, as when Beth stages an intervention on Ronny that Zed attends. Oh yes, another thing: Ronny's a recovering gambling addict. And Beth thinks his erratic behavior, caused by all that's going on, especially tracking Geneva's rendezvous with Zed (while concealing what he's doing from Nick and from her), is a sign he's back to gambling and is hiding it. Ronny certainly isn't being honest himself, since he's hidden what he's up to from everybody but Geneva and Zed.

But Vaughan is such a powerful personality that he can carry all this. Even if you wish he had something a little better to carry. You might wonder what Ron Howard is up to. Isn't a director who's made pop classics like Splash, Cocoon, Parenthood, and A Beautiful Mind slumming making a messed-up relationship comedy that keeps getting a little too serious? Well, maybe not, because he's recently done two terrible Dan Brown movies, and may have lost his own mainstream moral compass and need to change gears a bit. As for Vaughan, who knows? People know him for comedies like Dodge Ball and Wedding Crashers. He's very good in that genre of film but he could do them in his sleep now and he seems to have fallen asleep, drifting into increasingly labored and routine efforts like Four Christmases and Couples Retreat. I remember his deft appearances in more serious or stylish movies like Clay Pigeons, Thumbsucker, and Into the Wild. He could do a main role in a serious movie and it would be memorable and good.

It's quite strange to see Ryder and Connolly cast together. They are matches, like Vaughan and James. But while James just seems a less powerful, more mellow version of Vaughan, Ryder and Connolly are both handsome-looking dark-haired women, only Ryder up close seems cracked and off-kilter, while Connolly still has that fresh sharp-edged beauty she always had. Perhaps befitting his limitations as an actor whose high point has been a Nicholas Sparks movie, Channing Tatum is a shakily-conceived character, sexy, wimpy, and wacko all at once. His part would have to be written better than this if he were more than a heavy in the background. It's only the strength of the actors in the foreground that masks the unfocused writing in this movie.

The value of Vince Vaughan is that he's a man's man, a guy-guy. Next to him Brad Pitt's a little fellow. Owen Wilson's an airhead and Paul Rudd's a wimp -- and those two were just paired off in the lame comedy, How Do You Know. Vaughan carries his weight both physically and as a personality, which has an authority that just avoids being menacing because of the 100-watt warmth and charm. It's hard not to like Vaughan, or to follow him wherever he takes you. And thus he leads us through all the ups and downs of tone in The Dilemma His armor and Kevin James's is so thick, and so strong is our identification, we can watch them beat each other up in the waiting room before their final presentation at Dodge and still believe it could go off without a hitch. We can listen to Queen Latifah's over-the-top salacious lines as a Dodge adviser and just smile. Winona, on the other hand, is so repellent as Geneva, the plot cannot find a conciliatory place for her and in the later scenes she just blessedly disappears.

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