The Dilemma (PG-13)

Ron Howard’s latest film presents the viewer with a dilemma: The best scenes in this Vince Vaughn/Kevin James buddy picture, in which one buddy’s wife is cheating on him and the other buddy finds out, give us more to chew on than laugh about.

And that uncertainty makes the movie an unsatisfying if often surprising experience, a less warm and fuzzy Parenthood from a director long removed from his warm and fuzzy years.

Vaughn and James are partners in a Chicago auto-engineering business. Ronny (Vaughn) is the seller with a patter, prone to quoting the pre-game speech from the Kurt Russell hockey picture Miracle in “big game” moments. Nick (James) is the tech guy, the one who makes their promises to Chrysler come true. Their big idea — give electric cars that rumble and shake, what Nick (James) calls “the visceral experience” of muscle cars.

But as Nick burns the midnight oil, trying to get the right sound and shake out of a refitted electric Dodge, Ronny is trying to get up the gumption to propose to sexy chef Beth (Jennifer Connelly). As he scouts for the perfect place to propose, Ronny stumbles across an assignation – Nick’s wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder, in top form) is making out with a rich, hunky younger man, played by Channing Tatum.

Thus, Ronny’s dilemma. To tell Nick, how to tell Nick, when to tell Nick that won’t mess up their deadline with Chrysler. Or to confront Geneva. Or ask Beth for advice. What is the “Guy Code” in such situations?

“It’s all about trust,” Ronny frets. And as he frets, he starts to lie. He has flashbacks, as director Howard feels the need to literally show the fib Ronny is shaping in his head. Funny.

But the lies and a cracked, veiled and funny anniversary party toast make everybody wonder if Ronny’s little “problem” is back in his life, an element shoe-horned into this issues-oriented script.

Vaughn slows down his vintage Vince patter for this. He’s still funny, but he’s losing his fastball. So Queen Latifah comes in and broadly chews it up as a Chrysler exec who uses all manner of inappropriate sexual analogies in praising their car concept. And then there’s Tatum, playing Zip, Geneva’s paramour. Ronnie spies on them and gets into an epic tussle with this tattooed, pill-popping freak, given a manic hilarity by Tatum in the finest performance of his male-mannequin career.

James always tries too hard, but Vaughn picks his moments well. Connelly brings a sensitive touch. But Ryder, giving her unfaithful wife more of an edge than the namby-pamby script calls for, reminds us, in a single funny-poignant scene, what she’s capable of as an actress. She’s so good she left Howard with a real dilemma — how not to make this movie totally about her. The evidence is that he never does work that out.

Cast: Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Channing Tatum, Queen Latifah.

Director: Ron Howard.

Screenwriter: Allan Loeb.

Producers: Brian Grazer, Vince Vaughn.

A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 118 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes. Playing at: area theaters


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