Ron Howard, or at least the Ron Howard of the past 20 years, isn’t exactly distinguishable for his comedy in film. The “A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13” and “Frost/Nixon” director started well before those movies and in a very different way, growing up as an actor on TV comedies like “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days.”
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Howard returns to his comedic roots every now and then. As his dramatic output has become more consistent and successful, however, “now and then” has come to mean about once a decade. The current wait between comedic efforts is about ten years — a period bookended by the live-action Christmas classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and now by the star-lined modern comedy “The Dilemma.” And yes, that “classic” crack was sarcastic.
All puns aside (Howard faces quite the “dilemma” with his latest project!), Howard faces quite the dilemma with his latest project. How do you create serious, interesting characters and place them in situations where comedy ensues?
The chosen answer seems to be to cast tentpole comedic actors like Vince Vaughn (“Couples Retreat”) and Kevin James (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”) and let them create comedy through their onscreen personas. That actually somewhat works, but when it comes to comedy, somewhat working isn’t good enough and doesn’t make for a memorable film.
The story centers around two business partners, Ronny and Nick (Vaughn and James, respectively), who pitch an idea to Chrysler to recreate classic muscle car engine sounds inside an electric engine. That’s the film’s hook — probably something born in script rewrites to make the film more contemporary and relatable. The actual “Dilemma” of the story, however, is that Ronny sees Nick’s wife Geneva (Winona Ryder, “Black Swan”) cheating on Nick with a tatted-up punk named Zip (Channing Tatum, “Dear John”) and can’t quite figure out how to tell him while their project with Chrysler is still in the works. Underneath all of that is Ronny’s relationship with Beth (Jennifer Connelly, “He’s Just Not That Into You”), to whom he plans to propose. Oh, and there’s the clunky add-on backstory of Ronny’s former gambling problem.
The film feels like a lot of spare parts stuck together without much love, an awkward combination of comedy and seriousness that could have been salvaged into something meaningful, but as it’s written never really fits. The film’s different sub-plots are connected in the fact that each affects and inhibits the other — Ronny’s inability to come clean about Geneva’s affair starts to erode at the trust in his own relationship with Beth, just as it creates a silent tension in Ronny’s approach to his partnership with Nick — but none of them combine to really take the characters far enough into their individual conflicts.
Aside from the fact that most of its humor is forced, “The Dilemma” feels just a little too incomplete — and with a 111-minute runtime, it just seems like inefficient storytelling. The movie doesn’t round out its characters or give them legitimate enough arcs to pass through, leaving the film unmemorable.
And perhaps, at least for the film’s famous director, that’s a good thing. Howard blends in as a somewhat novice comedic director and won’t be remembered for this outing as he is for his more successful ones. With interesting-yet-unfleshed modern elements keeping it current, the film is a watchable, albeit pretty dull, experience.