The Dilemma

At 118 minutes, “The Dilemma” is easily 30 minutes too long. It’s also one of the shortest films Ron Howard has ever directed, and his first comedy in over a decade. The man who grew up on sitcoms and then made agreeable diversions like “Splash” and “Parenthood” seems to have lost his comedic touch.

Then again, maybe it’s just a bad screenplay. “The Dilemma” was written by Allan Loeb, who’s had more practice at dramas (“Things We Lost in the Fire,” “21”) than comedies (“The Switch”) — which might explain why this thing is constantly uncertain of what it’s supposed to be. Its premise is pure farce: a man discovers his best friend’s wife is cheating on him, is blackmailed into silence, and has his own furtive behavior misinterpreted. Yet there are surprisingly few laughs in the film, and several scenes that were clearly intended to be straight-up serious, despite being built on a premise that only works if you don’t take it seriously.

The stars are Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, two formerly very different actors who are now starting to look alike, at least where hairlines and waistlines are concerned. They play Ronny Valentine and Nick Brannen, best friends since college who have started an automotive-design firm. Ronny is the tall, fast-talking pitch man who sells General Motors on their idea; Nick is the squat, anxious engineer who makes the cars go vroom.

Nick is married to Geneva (Winona Ryder), apparently happily. Ronny has been dating Beth (Jennifer Connelly) for some time and is considering popping the question. Ronny and Beth have endured tough times already: He used to have a gambling problem and had to seek treatment. (This is the movie’s way of saying, “Remember how fun Vince Vaughn was in ‘Swingers’? Yeah, not anymore.”)

It takes far too long to get there, but the story’s inciting incident is eventually that Ronny sees Geneva making out with some guy who is not Nick. The titular dilemma is that Nick is already a stress case over the engine he’s designing for GM, and Ronny fears telling him now that his wife is cheating would sink the project and ruin them both financially.

So far, so good. This should probably be a two-part episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and not a two-hour movie, but we won’t harp on that. The trouble is that Loeb doesn’t believe this is enough trouble. It isn’t sufficient that Geneva is secretly cheating on Nick, and that Ronny is keeping his knowledge of it secret from Nick. Ronny also stumbles upon information that makes him wonder about his own partner, Beth, but he keeps his suspicions secret from her. Meanwhile, Beth and Nick both wonder if Ronny is gambling again, but rather than discuss it with him, they jump to conclusions and stage an intervention. Ronny also learns something about Nick that Nick wants kept secret, and doesn’t tell him that he knows.

We’re in full-blown Idiot Plot territory here. All of the film’s many, many conflicts would solved immediately if the four parties would have some honest conversations and stop harboring secrets from one another. The movie is so intent on making everyone hide information from everyone else that it has Ronny refuse to even tell Beth — the woman he wants to marry — what he knows about Geneva. He’d rather let Beth break up with him than tell her that their friend is cheating on their other friend. Why? Dunno.

This parade of misunderstandings and miscommunications could work if it were treated like the two-dimensional, just-for-laughs farce that it clearly wants to be. So why you gotta get all serious, movie? Why you gotta make Geneva into a psycho — a stock comic character — and then, turning on a dime, ask us to treat her sympathetically? (Not that Winona Ryder doesn’t make a great psycho.) Either ignore the harsh realities of the whole scenario, or handle them legitimately. Don’t introduce a few of them haphazardly and disregard the rest. That’s bad. BAD MOVIE.

I’d still like to see Vaughn and James in a buddy comedy. They have chemistry that goes untapped here, hinted at now and then when Ronny and Nick start bantering. I’m a little curious about two other characters, too: Zip (Channing Tatum), the guy Geneva’s sleeping with; and Susan (Queen Latifah), the boys’ liaison at GM. They’re both oddball characters, composed mainly of quirks, the type of supporting players that can sometimes steal a film. But it feels like their funniest scenes — the ones that would have helped them break out — were deleted, leaving behind bizarre remnants of goofiness. You’d think there’d be room in a 118-minute semi-comedy for more comedy, but apparently not.

C- (1 hr., 58 min.; PG-13, one F-word, moderate other profanity, some vulgarity, a couple shots of a naked butt.)