A comedy about infidelity that’s more sad sack than slapstick

The Dilemma caused a bit of an uproar—and garnered some unanticipated publicity—last fall when its trailer was released, including an extended joke about electric cars being “totally gay.” (The trailer hit theaters, and the Internet, just a week after a string of gay teen suicides made national headlines). Leaving aside the fact that some people might be deeply offended by the implications of such a joke, especially given the timing, the scene is objectionable for at least one other reason: It leads viewers to believe that The Dilemma is a comedy, when in fact it’s a depressing, muddled meditation on commitment with laughs more bitter than they are sweet.

Ronny Valentine (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Brannen (Kevin James) are old college buddies, now paunchier but no more mature, who co-own a successful auto design firm where they endeavor to make electric engines that mimic the guttural, manly motors of muscle cars. They land a big meeting with Chrysler, make a pitch that consists pretty much entirely of the aforementioned gay joke, and are awarded a contract.

Equally improbably, the two men are partnered with gorgeous, intelligent, supportive women—Beth (Jennifer Connelly), Ronny’s long-term girlfriend, and Geneva (Winona Ryder), Nick’s college sweetheart and now-wife—who not only tolerate their adolescent machismo but actually accompany them to hockey games wearing team jerseys. Nick and Geneva seem like the perfect couple, and it’s in no small part due to their encouragement that Ronny decides, finally, to bite the bullet and ask Beth to marry him. But as he’s scouting the perfect proposal location, he sees Geneva with another man and must figure out how—and when—to break the news to Nick. Hence the dilemma.

The problem with The Dilemma—its own dilemma, if you will—is that it doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie it is. At times, it seems to want to be a raunchy, Apatowian buddy flick, but it’s not nearly funny enough (Queen Latifah makes a cringe-worthy cameo as a Chrysler exec who uses the term “lady wood” more than once in reference to her, um, intellectual arousal over Ronny and Nick’s vision). But it also seems to want to be a serious portrait of changing relationships, showcasing sobering, often tearful monologues from its stars—in addition to a few fistfights not played for laughs).

With a veteran like Ron Howard at the helm, you’d think the movie would be able to find its rhythm, but instead it flat-lines—in the end, it’s not really funny or poignant, just kind of sad. Even Vaughn, whose trademark motor mouth energy elevates most of the comedic moments, looks like he needs at least a week of sleep, and supporting characters meant to provide quirky color—Geneva’s Oxycontin-abusing young boyfriend; Ronny’s world-weary older sister; Nick and Ronny’s creepy, Second Life-addicted employee—are tinged with melancholy. By the time everyone gathers for an intervention (Beth mistakenly takes Ronny’s suspicious behavior as an indication that an old gambling addiction has resurfaced), you’re hoping that Dr. Drew will pop in and start passing out uppers.

I will commend The Dilemma for unexpectedly handling a serious question—how do you tell your best friend the worst news of his life?—with some of the gravity it deserves. But in the end it’s kind of a buzz-kill. In other words, ladies, prepare to lose your wood.

The Dilemma (PG-13) ★☆☆☆☆

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