Dark ‘Dilemma’ tries to be sunny — and fails

You may have finished your holiday leftovers, but Hollywood is just getting started.

Studios are starting to release movies deemed unfit for competition during the hotly contested months of November and December, which means (yikes) somebody didn't think "The Dilemma" would hold up against "Little Fockers."

You probably agree if you've been watching the movie's dreadful TV commercials - several lame outtakes in search of a joke.

It turns out, though, that "Dilemma" is not the lazy pile of bromance, buddy-movie slop it appears to be - it's much more ambitious than that, a lot darker, which explains why Oscar collaborators Ron Howard, (producer) Brian Glazer and Jennifer Connelly are on board (late of "A Beautiful Mind").

Also Vince Vaughn, who probably saw shades of his anti-romance "The Break Up" in "Dilemma," the story of a businessman named Ronny (Vaughn) who learns that his best friend and business partner (Kevin James) has an unfaithful wife (Winona Ryder).

The idea is ripe with black-comedy possibilities - Ronny's in a precarious lose-lose situation, torn between doing nothing and trying to force the hand of his friend's wife, who turns out to have a little Barbara Stanwyck in her.

To boot, his friend's disintegrating marriage influences Ronny's own ongoing commitment issues. He's trying to work up the courage to propose to his longtime live-in, played by Connelly.

There are times when this creepy scenario yields some good scenes. Vaughn has a legitimately spooky showdown with Ryder, whose character, like an auditioning actress, goes abruptly weepy to demonstrate how chillingly effective she is at lying.

And Vaughn, whose character is assigned a gambling problem, actually plays it straight in some off-the-wall scenes - alone on a bus-stop bench, asking the same God who helped with his gambling problem to help him again.

But "The Dilemma" doesn't have the nerve to explore the movie's downbeat soul, and settles for cheese and slapstick. A subplot about Vaughn and James trying to sell engine technology to Detroit is flimsy and dull.

This subplot also accounts for the movie's infamous gay joke - Vaughn makes a sales pitch that starts with his assertion that "electric cars are gay." Comedic value aside, it's a puzzlingly stupid thing to say to a room of executives he doesn't know.

Elsewhere the movie degenerates into routine slapstick. Somebody panicked and tried to give the movie a conventionally funny, sunny surface, and the result is a borderline debacle. Howard, trying to punch up the laughs, ends up creating a movie that's not nearly as funny as his last two exercises in solemnity - "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons."

The Dilemma

Directed by Ron Howard. With Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Vince Vaughn, Queen Latifah, Channing Tatum, Kevin James. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 58 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements involving sexual content).

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