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Thursday, 20 January 2011

In The Company of Chumps: The Dilemma

Over the last few years Vince Vaughn’s charted a course slightly askew from, well, pretty much everyone else in the romantic comedy business. Everyone else almost always focuses in on the beginning of relationships; he makes films that are a little more interested in what happens after the fun stops. Not that anyone’s going to confuse The Break-Up or Couples Retreat with Carnal Knowledge in a hurry, but compared to yet another tortureporn effort where some poor chump settles down with / has his nuts cut off by Katherine Heigl, at least he actually seems to be attracted to projects that spend at least a couple of seconds thinking about exactly what “happily ever after” actually entails.

So knowing that Vaughn tends to like making rom-coms that make you at least momentarily question the nature of romance (and more often the nature of comedy, considering their often more miss than hit approach to gags), the opening scene of The Dilemma brings with it zero surprises, Basically, the cast - Vince, Kevin James (clearly taking on the Jon Favreau [Vaughn's long-time cohort and co-star in Swingers, Made and more recently Couples Retreat] role), Winona Ryder as James' wife and Jennifer Connelly as Vaughn's girlfriend – sit around talking about honesty and its importance in a relationship. If you're even slightly familiar with the works of playwrights like Neil LaBute (and why hasn’t Vaughn teamed up with LaBute yet? Someone start that Facebook page), you'll recognise the gambit: everyone stakes out their views on honesty, and then circumstances contrive to make them either give up their principles and become hollow shells or stick by them and ruin their lives.

Problem here is, we then get ten minutes or so of crap "bromance" hijinks as it's established that Vaughn and James live in each others pockets (they have their own company together trying to make electric cars sound like muscle cars - but more on that later) and that Vaughn is a rapid-fire blabbermouth who thinks the best way to sell his rumbling engines to auto executives is by calling regular electric cars "gay". The "gay" line's an odd one, because we don't know how to respond: is it supposed to be funny (it's not, unless you're one Melbourne critic who all but pissed his already stained pants at it), or is it supposed to be as awkward for the characters on screen as it is in the cinema?

Either way would work for the film - Vaughn is playing a bit of a dickhead who lets his mouth run away with him so there's the drama covered, and the wacky work pitch is a comedy bit that often gets laughs - but because this film is staggering all over the place like a dog who's spent the day sucking up spilt beer we don't know. Last time I checked, being confused doesn't usually mean you're having a good time.

Anyway, the movie stumbles on with no real idea of what its trying to do - the guys' company is struggling and that's meant to be serious, but Queen Latifa is playing an inappropriately explicit auto executive saying stuff like "I want to have sex with your words" which is presumably funny but who can really tell - and then finally things click into gear when Vaughn, while planning out his marriage proposal in some giant greenhouse full of exotic plants, sees Ryder making out with some other guy. Serious moment, right? Not once Vaughn has finished crawling through poison plants to spy on them! Hah! Wait, no hah.

You can almost see what they're trying for here, and in a sillier film it would probably work. But this is a film that doesn't trust you enough to figure out that there's anything at stake here. In a regular comedy, film-makers just assume the audience knows that discovering that your best friend's wife is cheating on him is serious and sad, and then move onto being funny. But after this scene - which, like I said, almost works because he's actually seeing something serious while doing something stupid - the film just keeps on going on and on about how this is a really serious and sad situation before cracking a couple of lame jokes. It's like the film is a crap stand-up comedian prefacing every single one of his one-liners with "sorry your wife's a cheating skank": it kinda kills the mood.

Then it gets even stranger. "Serious grown-up issues" and "laugh-out-loud comedy" rarely go hand-in hand, but when Vaughn corners Ryder and confronts her about what he saw this goes out of its way to be grown-up about the whole thing. Turns out that James has been cold and distant to her no matter how hard she tries - so distant, in fact, that not only has he stopped shagging her, he's off down the Asian massage parlour every Thursday for a hand shandy. And this grim, tragic look inside a dying marriage is funny how?

Ryder does get to put this scene on her showreel though, as she suddenly turns into Satan's Daughter by turning on the fake waterworks to show how she'll lie her way out of it if Vaughn tells James about what happened. So she's the bad guy, right? We can cheer when she gets her eventual comeuppance - and more importantly, laugh as she ends up going through the wringer? Nope: she goes back to being a heart-wrenching figure of pity (or just someone who looks sad and seems trapped) in every single other scene she's in. So no laughs there.

And there's not a whole lot of laughs (let alone laffs) to be found when Vaughn follows James to the massage parlour and discovers that yes, his best mate has gone there to be wanked off by a massage parlour boss who basically comes out into the front of the place and says "we're going to give you an excellent hand-job tonight!". Geez, hope there are no law enforcement agents in a three block radius to overhear that.

Usually hand-job material is comedy gold, but don't forget: he's getting one while he's still married and his heart-broken wife knows about it. Urgh. Even those sitcoms where married couples just insult each other non-stop never went that far. So Vaughn is confiding in his girlfriend about all this shit, right? After all, in like the second scene of the film Ryder says to him something like "We really like her and she's not even one of my friends!" so you know there's no girl bond between Ryder and Connelly. Of course he's not: he lies to her like a maniac for no reason so she can start thinking he's gambling again. Hilarious!

Then we get a bunch of scenes where James acts like a dick - surprisingly well too, and to be fair the acting in this film is pretty sharp from top to bottom - just to make sure we know his crumbling relationship is his fault as well. Then Vaughn actually prays for guidance - again, begging God for help without a trace of irony is not exactly comedy gold - then suddenly he's pulling some stalker shit outside the house of the guy Ryder's f**king and guess what? He's a tattooed-idiot called Zip, so there goes the sympathy for her the film was trying so hard to create a few scenes back.

At this stage you might be thinking "is this even supposed to be a comedy?". Problem with writing this off as just a clumsy drama is that Zip (Channing Tatum) is actually on-purpose funny, which means he seems to have come from a completely different movie (one that mostly involves beating the crap out of Vaughn). One half-baked comedy intervention for Vaughn's gambling later and the secret's out, Ryder tearfully vanishes from the film forever and the true point is revealed: can James and Vaughn's friendship survive? Hang on, what?

This might have been a dilemma - geddit? - if James' cheating wife had been an evil skank. But hasn't half this film been telling us that their marriage was hurtling down shit creek sans paddle for both of them? If James is so massive a tool that he'd get pissed off at his friend for telling him his wife was sleeping around at the same time as he's got a regular booking down at the Five Fingers of Hope Saloon, why the f**k should we want Vaughn to stay friends with him?

The result is that there's just no drama there at all: the film was so desperate to avoid making Ryder the villain that there's no dramatic tension at all in whether the friendship survives. James has been an obvious shitbird, Vaughn hasn't been a whole lot better and they deserve each other so just end the damn film already. Only not with a bizarre scene where James knocks a hockey puck through a tiny target to win a prize and a giant hug from Vaughn because a guy firing a projectile through a tiny opening seems a little bit much like a sex thing.

One massive question remains (okay, two, the first being how the hell did two slobs like Vaughn and James land amazingly hot dames like Connelly and Ryder when they're clearly not even that interested in them): considering this is a movie that makes such a massive deal about the question of honesty - and, surprising no-one, comes down hard on the line that honesty is the policy to take out - why does it also make such a big deal about James and Vaughn's day job considering said day job is entirely based around making a car engine sound like something it's not. It's a, you know, deception? A big fat, bass-heavy rumbling lie?

That's right: in a film about being honest, their job is basically about lying to people. Is it a metaphor? A hint that while the characters conclude one thing about the importance of honestly, the film is saying something else? With something as all-over-the-shop as The Dilemma, who the f**k knows?

Anthony Morris

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