Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dilemma: Tall Fat Guy or Short Fat Guy?

Ron Howard is a competent commercial director whose work might be best distinguished by its lack of a distinction, or discernible point of view. His movies appear to wander the map, encompassing masculine adventures like Backdraft and Apollo 13, family comedies like Parenthood, and literary adaptations like The Da Vinci Code, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon. (Did I just call Dan Brown "literary"?)

With The Dilemma, the erstwhile Opie takes on the buddy comedy, well-trod ground more than adequately covered by hipper directors like Judd Apatow. The first problem with the movie, evident from the trailer, is that the two lead actors aren’t sufficiently different in manner and appearance. You have a tall, chunky, unprepossessing guy (Vince Vaughn) paired with a short, chunkier, unprepossessing guy (Kevin James), and when they’re seated, it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart. Their pretty, dark-haired partners, played by Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder, are also rather interchangeable.

Upon this foundation of ill-considered casting is built a very conventional story, not as clever even as a single episode of Friends. The movie’s high concept is this: Ronny Valentine (Vaughn), a heartfully named Chicago car-design firm entrepreneur, spots Geneva (Ryder), the wife of his best friend and business partner Nick (James), canoodling with a tattooed young punker. Ronny, a fast-talking liar but overall good guy, spends the rest of the movie agonizing about whether to tell the sensitive, ulcer-prone Nick about his wife’s perfidy and risk a high-stakes deal the two friends are working on.

Their project, absurdly enough, is developing an electric motor for vintage Chrysler muscle cars that will sound as loud and throaty as an internal combustion engine — much like the Marx Za-Zooom Sound of Power Motor did for kids’ bikes in the ’60s. Ronny wins over the hearts and wallets of Chrysler executives — including a consultant played by Queen Latifah in yet another useless, ill-defined role — with a presentation that begins: “Electric cars are gay.” The movie exerts similar effort denying its own homoeroticism, trotting out multiple symbols of exaggerated masculinity, like muscle cars and professional hockey. At least Apatow’s “bromance” I Love You, Man poked fun at hyper-masculine male-bonding by having Paul Rudd’s character care more about making desserts and snuggling with his girlfriend than going out drinking with guys.

Ronny confronts Geneva, with whom he has some fleeting romantic history, and she responds by spitting vituperative threats. By concealing his problem and lying about the bizarre scrapes he gets into as a result of his painful knowledge, 40-year-old bachelor Ronny risks his own deepening relationship with his girlfriend Beth (Connelly), who thinks Ronny, a reformed gambler, has returned to his betting ways. After Ronny makes an embarrassing public toast (movie comedy clichĂ© #144) at her parents’ swanky 40th anniversary party, Beth arranges an intervention for him (are people still doing that or, for that matter, buying Chryslers?).

The movie’s banal premise is hardly sufficient meat to fortify a two-hour movie, and the screenwriter, the well-regarded Allan Loeb, seems to have exhausted his creative energy after the introductory scenes, which establish the two couples’ jokey friendship, with Vaughn providing his trademark glib, wide-ranging monologues. As happens with so many Hollywood productions when they run out of ideas, things take a turn for the ridiculous. Ronny seems to descend into a kind of madness, following Ronny to an Asian massage parlor and stalking the faithless Geneva, even climbing onto a balcony to photograph her sex tryst and getting into a stupendously violent fight with her lover (Channing Tatum), the uproariously named Zip. And yet the movie doesn’t explore this madness, excusing Ronny’s behavior, no matter how psychotic, as understandable in the name of defending the holy institution of Male Friendship.

When a movie jumps the tracks as this one does, one’s mind naturally wanders to other topics, such as, how would this material play in the hands of a more artistic director? Woody Allen could make a fine movie about the problems that arise between two couples when a wife’s adultery is discovered, and it would never involve, as this movie does, anyone being pummeled, punched, threatened with a flaming homemade blowtorch, or two fat men writhing in loving friendship on the ice at a pro hockey game. A French filmmaker could take the same premise and create a soufflĂ© farce that might eventually have Ronny realize that it’s Nick he loves, not Beth, and that’s why he’s dragged his feet in proposing marriage. Sacredieu!

The waste of good professional resources on this half-baked material is a shame. This is a very slick-looking production, with clever production design and impressive cinematography by Salvatore Totino with an emphasis on beautifully framed, gleaming night shots. Too bad the material doesn’t rise to the same level of artistry

(Review originally published on the Cleveland Movie Blog. Bookmark it!)

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