January 12, 2011
One thing audiences really rely on Hollywood for is its well established paradigms. It’s no secret that in terms of “mass audiences” (as opposed to “critical” or even “popular” ones), studios know that they have to meet certain generic expectancies, delivering the (arguable) desired economics of predictability that the average viewer brings with them to the cinema. That is why Hollywood has always, still does, and no doubt always will, stick to certain cinematic paradigms for the vast majority of their output. However, there are times when even the major studios like to think outside of their self-created paradigmatic boxes. Question is, to what end?
The Dilemma (2011) is one such film that parades itself as a typical Hollywood comedy, yet really is far more concerned with communicating heartfelt conservativism. That is to say that the film promotes typically conservative values through a guise of unconventional emotive integrity with the occasional bit of light comic relief thrown in – something that acts as an intermittent distraction from its, at times, questionable central politics.
The premise is straight forward: Ronny Valentine (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Brannen (Kevin James) are best friends and business partners, they are on the verge of the single greatest deal of their professional lives but, just as Ronny is about to pluck up the courage and committment to finally propose to girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly), he learns that Geneva (Winona Ryder) is cheating on best friend Brannen. What to do? Tell him and risk the emotional impact of what could be the deal of a lifetime, or, stay quiet until things quieten down and hope Geneva will come clean first? Where the premise provides only a simplistic dilemma, the film’s moral project assumes the responsibility of a far more difficult one: conservativism or comedy?
Constantly reinforcing the value of honesty and the sanctity of marriage, The Dilemma is concerned with the contemporary demise of such values and the instigative motivators at play. With dialogue that confirms the significance of such institutions as, “Pop the question or you’re going to lose her” and “You’re forty years old and not married, go fix yourself”, The Dilemma surprisingly doesn’t place blame on infidelity alone, and rather takes into consideration extraneous factors such as professional pressures and personal issues.
Beginning with a conversation about how well you can ever truly know someone and exploring the idea that everyone keeps something secret from the loved ones around them, The Dilemma wants to expose the personal in favour of the public. Suggesting full disclosure is the only acceptable route for personal happiness and ultimate resolution, it seems that we are to take from the film, insofar as moralising goes, that relationships are the pinnacle of a contented life and that if you can resolve issues that disrupt those sacred bonds then you can achieve just about anything.
Disappointingly, the film goes on to normalise heterosexuality and unfortunately uses the term “gay” in a derogatory way as if it were an equivalent term for “lame”. There are also some rather uncomfortable scenes with Queen Latifah whose racial stereotyping acts as a strange allowance for the white people in the film to “understandably” be at first taken aback by her approach and finally endeared to it in an overwhelmingly patronising way; the “acceptance” of her difference ultimately provided through a sort of “tolerance”.
Finally, and this is to the film’s credit, The Dilemma allows its female characters a certain ounce of agency and the performances given by both Connelly and Ryder are both convincing and demonstrative of their exemplary talents. There are too, scenes in the film that are genuinely well executed such as the “intervention” scene where successful dialogue and strong performances come together well. These scenes however, are inconsistent within the context of the film as a whole and there are equal instances where greater editing would have saved onscreen rambling from becoming communicable awkwardness (namely the scenes where Vince Vaughn is overdoing the “Vaughn” he has so labored over the years).
An occasionally affecting and an at least thoughtful presentation of albeit conservative politics, The Dilemma thinks outside the typical buddy or bromance parameters, though it ultimately leaves little else than heteronormative propaganda in its wake.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.