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Movie Review: Pratfalls mask infidelity in ‘The Dilemma’

What gonzo enthusiasm Vince Vaughn brings to movies. From “Swingers” to “Wedding Crashers,” he has been an irresistible lunatic with a strange reservoir of undying confidence, peculiar sensitivity and the kind of morality that insists on “earmuffs” for a child’s ears while a frat party is planned. He’s like an earnest, comically deranged motivation speaker.

Add now to Vaughn’s canon the blissful image of him using a makeshift blowtorch on a suburban block, screaming, “I’m going to burn your face off!”

His act, maybe, isn’t as fresh as it once was, but Vaughn still puts a charge into movies. Around the time he turns pyromaniac, “The Dilemma” has a pulse. Ron Howard’s comedy begins and ends in hokey cliche, but for a brief period in the middle, it carries a slight hint of Billy Wilder, playing uncomfortable stuff for not entirely dumb laughs.

“The Dilemma” opens on two couples out having dinner together: Ronny Valentine (Vaughn) and his girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly), and Ronny’s best friend and business partner Nick Brannen (Kevin James) and his wife Geneva (Winona Ryder). The conversation turns to whether you can ever truly know someone, and the following action serves to upend appearances of easy, contented love.

While scouting a location to propose to Beth, Ronny stumbles upon Geneva cheating on Nick with a younger, fitter man (Channing Tatum), an awkward situation made all the more so because Ronny and Nick are on the cusp of a breakthrough with their business. Their pitch to Dodge (one of the movie’s many overt product placements) is that they want to create an electric car that matches a muscle car’s brawn.

It’s an interesting trend among the movies that deign to give their characters actual working lives: whimsical, enviro-friendly occupations. We should ready ourselves for a character who wants to solve global warming with a Wii game.

Their presentation goes well, though, and with Queen Latifah playing their excitable supervisor, the pair — Nick is the engineer, Ronny the salesman — are under pressure to produce a working engine. Faced with the difficult prospect of informing Nick of his cheating spouse, Ronny does not want to harm their friendship or their livelihood.

Filled with blaring music and aerial shots of Chicago, it’s a set up for a basic sitcom plot. But it gets more interesting when Ronny learns that Nick, too, has been unfaithful, and that Geneva’s indiscretions aren’t without a reason.

Ronny’s detective work proves a descent into an unhappy side of married life, where infidelity is so rife that he reveals his brother-in-law’s cheating completely by accident. Howard’s light but thorny examination of marital disfunction reaches an apex when Ronny gives a cynical toast at the 40th anniversary party of his future in-laws. In another clever sideways glance, Howard visually represents Ronny’s outlandish lies when he claims he got a bad rash from “street plants.” It’s a gag that Howard should have made more consistent.

The trust theme is the best thing about the film, but the problem with “The Dilemma” — written by Allan Loeb (“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”) — is that it seems unsure of committing to it.

Unfortunately, Ronny and Nick’s bromance takes over, and James has neither the comedy chops or wildness to keep up with Vaughn. Meanwhile, the talented Connelly is left almost entirely on the sidelines. Ryder, who recently reappeared in “Black Swan,” is excellent and keeps Geneva hard to pin down.

But sports metaphors proliferate until “The Dilemma” sinks into them, finally concluding in a senseless scene on an NHL hockey rink. It’s a missed opportunity: If only Howard had kept his eyes on the puck.

“The Dilemma,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements involving sexual content. Running time: 110 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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