You don’t get much for free these days. So when Richard couldn’t make it to a free screening of a new film, The Dilemma, I was pleased to deputise for him, with Raewyn tagging along for a rare night away from parenting duties. The details didn’t sound particularly promising: Ron Howard has sold a lot of movie tickets but his films aren’t generally my cup of tea, and Vince Vaughn’s choice in scripts is pretty dire these days. On the plus side I was interested to see how supporting actors Jennifer Connelly (of Labyrinth and A Beautiful Mind Oscar-winning fame) and Winona Ryder fared in a mainstream comedy, and the prospect of being able to comment on a work in progress appealed to the film geek in me.
The Dilemma isn’t out yet – the studio was trialling a near-final cut with a view to releasing it in January 2011. And, let’s be frank about this, I didn’t like it. As comedies go it was far too broad for my taste – its plot was highly predictable and the performances involved were hardly special. It wasn’t a truly awful film – there were a few moment of genuine humour that struggled to peep through the fairly laboured plot, and the cast weren’t dislikeable by any means. It just fits into the category of unchallenging, unimaginative fare. Sure, it might achieve middling success in America and on rental, but it’s hardly memorable or impressive.
Vince Vaughn’s acting career hasn’t turned out all that well, despite making him a lot of money. The promise shown when he appeared in his friend Jon Favreau’s excellent Swingers in 1996 has all but dissipated as his genuine comedic talent for playing brash and quirky blowhards have largely been squandered in a race to produce a string of bland comedies. This was capped by his flirtation with the lower reaches of the tabloid A-list during his mid-2000s string of box office successes and his relationship with Jennifer Aniston. Things could’ve been so different though – Vaughn won the plum role of Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s challenging remake of Psycho. But the lure of more conventional and less challenging material proved too strong.
In fairness, Vaughn has been bankable in broad comedy roles. In the 2000s he appeared in 12 movies that grossed over US$50m each and six movies that grossed over US$100m:
|Starsky & Hutch||2004||$88.2|
|Mr & Mrs Smith||2005||$186.3|
It seems that Vaughn’s career has been shackled by the success he found with Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers – the louche bounder role that made everyone a great deal of money. (I’ve not seen it, but watching the trailer now I’m surprised to see that it actually looks fairly amusing, particularly the scenes with Isla Fisher being bonkers). And two Christmas-themed movies in a row? Now that’s just careless.
There are overtones of carelessness in The Dilemma too. For starters, it’s a bit unfair on the supporting actresses to suggest that the characters they portray are hooked up with Vaughn (Ronny) and his side-kick Nick, played by the roly-poly Kevin James (The King of Queens, Paul Blart: Mall Cop), both of whom have seen better days. This is Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder we’re talking about here! The couples are simply not that plausible.
One of the problems of being an actress is the unrelenting public focus on their appearance, so why not redress this by focusing on the appearance of male actors instead. In this case, James brings an everyman averageness to the film – punters will identify with him, even while they struggle to suspend disbelief that he has somehow snared Winona freaking Ryder. But in the case of Vaughn, who turned 40 this year, there are image issues. Perhaps a woman as hot as Jennifer Connelly (also 40 in a few months) would’ve hooked up with Vaughn in his dashing younger days, but sadly, as with many chaps of our age - Vaughn is only a few years older than me - he’s really filling out with a noticeable double chin. And when Vaughn appears in a business suit in profile the efforts the wardrobe department have made to disguise his growing paunch are obvious. Now I’m not saying it’s a crime to be a bit portly onscreen – far from it. But it does stretch credibility somewhat that a character who hasn’t taken care of themselves particularly well is supposedly adored by the trim and beautiful Connelly.
There’s also the implausible methods of exposition. Two key plot points (Ronny has a pair of slightly inconvenient secrets) are shoe-horned in at the half-way mark in an ungainly fashion, when it would have been so easy to trail hints with snippets of dialogue earlier in the script. As it stands, both the reveals are abrupt and contrived – a scriptwriter jumping through hoops but not really trying.
For a film billed as a comedy drama, The Dilemma straddles two mediums without stamping its authority on either. The first half of the film is simply not funny, with precious few jokes and much laboured set-up. The one prominent stab at humour is memorable for the wrong reason. Vaughn and James play car design consultants, and in their pitch session to produce an electric car that sounds like a macho petrol-head racer, the key line you’re meant to find hilarious is:
Electric cars are gay. I mean not homosexual gay, but, you know, my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.
Ah, so ‘not homosexual gay’, but rather that use of the word ‘gay’ that indicates that things are rubbish, useless and uncool – so not derogatory to gay people in the slightest. Pull the other one. Everyone knows that the two concepts are inextricably linked, and writers should know by now that such playground language is unacceptable and downright unhealthy. In all honesty, I should point out that it got a modest laugh from the mostly youthful Wimbledon test audience when the line was sprung, but that doesn’t make it right. At the risk of being blindingly obvious, if the line was ‘electric cars are black’ would that have been in the slightest bit funny? Of course not.
It seems to me that the use of the ‘gay’ joke in the trailer of the film was an attempt to brand The Dilemma as a film that heterosexual middle American males could take their girlfriends to see. ‘Lookit: it may be a film about relationships and infidelity, which sounds like a drag, but it’s also about muscle cars and they say electric cars are gay’. This is dog-whistle stuff, seeking free pre-release publicity. That doesn’t excuse it, particularly because the joke remains in the film.
The offending clip has been pulled from the trailer after public criticism. Vaughn issued a press release too, which rather missed the point: jokes equating homosexuality with naffness hardly ‘break tension and bring us together’, after all. Entertainingly, the film’s producers are only digging a deeper hole for themselves:
Yet the only people seemingly bewildered by the mess are the Universal Studios execs themselves. As one anonymous insider told Deadline, "We showed the trailer to gay groups like GLAAD and gay executives here and gays in our marketing department, and no one was offended, and everyone had a positive response." Because nothing says acceptance like referring to employees at your company as "gays in our marketing department."
Perhaps it’s all part of the marketing strategy. If that’s true it’s lamentable. After all, it’s not as if it would’ve been hard to try another tack. What about this:
Electric cars… well, your mom drives one.
[Screen flashes large text: ‘MOM’, which blinks a couple of times]
Sure, there’s nothing wrong with your mom. But if you’re out there in your car trying to impress the ladies on a date you kinda wanna have a better chance at scoring than your mom, don’t you? Well, not your mom Nick, I know she gets all kind of action whatever she drives, but generally speaking…
Okay, so I’m not an expert but surely that’s at least mildly funny, and that only took me 90 seconds. How difficult can it be?
Anyway, back to the movie. The casting of Queen Latifah as a blokey Dodge exec who pops up to offer encouragement and slightly creepy masculine sexual imagery (a muscle-car motor noise ‘gives her lady wood’) is somewhat jarring and again hardly plausible. And as Raewyn pointed out, it’s Latifah’s character – a black woman in a room full of white execs – who endorses the crass ‘gay’ joke, thereby lending it some acceptability: ‘look, here’s a minority character and she liked it’.
Far better is the casting of Tatum Channing (Stop-Loss) as the tattooed, passive-aggressive philanderer Zip, who is having an affair with Ryder’s character. His scenes with Vaughn work well, particularly when the latter attempts to escape with photographic evidence of the affair, bringing out pleasingly manic aspects of Vaughn’s performance. They’re some of the few moments in The Dilemma that don’t feel utterly predictable.
Speaking of predictability, there’s several sequences that can only be described as hackneyed. When angsting over how to tell his best friend that his wife is having an affair, Ronny is seen sitting at a bus-stop bench talking to God. Aside from the cringe-worthy cliché, there’s also only the most half-hearted attempt to insert a joke into the dialogue (he asks for spiritual guidance and, as an afterthought, also asks for success in his business pitch. Hilarious…) We’re meant to take this feeble stuff seriously. And in order to expound on Ronny’s stress – the dilemma, in fact – we find him standing on a pedestrian bridge acting out potential scenarios for breaking the news to his pal. Again, it’s unimaginative, and the joke from the trailer (a boy asks his mum, ‘Why is that man hugging himself?’ and she replies, ‘Just keep walking’) is hardly snicker-inducing. It didn’t even make the draft edit that we were shown in the cinema.
As I’ve said, this film wasn’t my cup of tea. The humour, what there was of it anyway, wasn’t to my taste and the dramatic aspects were uninteresting. Does that mean it will fail at the box-office? Sadly, probably not. I doubt it will be a resounding success, but equally this sort of unchallenging, DVD-fodder filmmaking might well be lapped up. I doubt it will generate sufficient word-of-mouth to make a great deal of money, but realistically it can’t have been that expensive to make, apart from Vaughn’s fee.
What could have made it better? Easy. It needed more jokes. When writing a screen comedy you have to ask yourself serious questions if there aren’t laughs in each and every minute. They don’t have to be big laughs, and not all of the jokes have to be classics. But if you’re making a broad mainstream comedy like The Dilemma you can’t just rely on celebrity status to coast to success. It’s not good enough to claim that it’s a comedy-drama, with the drama aspect supposedly excusing the listless patches. No. Those dramatic scenes – they need jokes too. Just make it funnier!
In other film news, this week saw the return to the small screen of Film 2010 (aka The Film Programme), the movie show that’s been an institution on the BBC since 1974. It’s only had two hosts since then: Barry Norman followed by Jonathan Ross. Ross is an acquired taste, and his talkshow audiences with celebrities were often amusing but verged on sycophantic at times. Not so with The Film Programme, on which Ross offered considered, low-key takes on cinema releases – it was clear that film was an abiding passion and he did a good job presenting.
So when Ross left the BBC it was always going to be a challenge to replace him, and concerns were expressed when BBC presenter Claudia Winkleman was given the job, given her background in light entertainment TV. The format of the programme has been changed too, with a sidekick Danny Leigh on the sofa to bounce ideas off, a bunch of additional reporters to offer short interview clips or the usual top 5 lists, and ubiquitous Twitter interactivity through the broadcast.
I’ve only seen Winkleman at a recording of a Radio 2 panel show she was hosting, and found her quick-witted and amusing. On Film 2010 her discussions with Danny Leigh worked well, although the diversions provided by the three additional reporters cut into the amount of time available to discuss the films in depth and show clips of a meaningful length.
There’s no shame in attempting to update a TV format if it’s showing its age, but I think in the case of Film 2010 that too much tinkering would be a bad idea. Ultimately it’s a programme that provides clever insights into interesting films, and you can’t do that successfully if you’re continually seeking online feedback on Top 5 Films About the Moon or watching Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley give an interview about not very much, just because it’s live and therefore somehow exciting.
Hopefully Winkleman and Leigh will be allowed the time to have decent discussions and conduct in-depth interviews as they gain in confidence. Pre-recording the programme would be one key way of helping this along, rather than the potential pitfalls of a live programme.
Lastly, those with a taste for black comedy should look no further than Matthew’s review of Chris Morris’ Four Lions, the tale of idiotic would-be terrorists and a shambolic plan to disrupt the London Marathon. And once you’ve read the review, you should track down the movie and watch it right away. ‘Rubber dinghy rapids!’