Sometimes we go to the movies for their predictability: We want happy endings from Nora Ephron and huge explosions from Michael Bay. Sometimes we go to be surprised, frightened or held in suspense.
And sometimes, because of an act of diversionary marketing, we go to the movies expecting one thing and get something else entirely.
Call this a dilemma ““ better yet, call it “The Dilemma,” the latest Ron Howard project starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James as best friends and Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder as their respective partners. The title refers to the conundrum facing Vaughn’s character when he catches Ryder’s character engaging in some extramarital romance.
What you know about the movie is probably the controversial trailer, in which Vaughn claims during a business meeting that electric cars are “gay.”
But there is an entire movie to go with that scene, one that appeared in theaters on Jan. 14 and has since grossed more than $33 million. And that movie turns out to be a surprisingly good one, just not the one you’d expect.
Rather than a shallow, immature Apatow-type comedy, “The Dilemma” is an honest and, at times, very smart investigation of relationships. It’s occasionally hilarious, but it’s more often a serious story told well, a meditation on honesty from a variety of angles.
That’s especially impressive if you consider it in the broad category of romantic comedies, a genre that lets “Valentine’s Day” pass for thematic unity.
Ron Howard’s name should have been a clue, but his work with “The Da Vinci Code” series suggested that his involvement with “The Dilemma” would reflect more on his recent choices as a director than on the movie’s potential. Actually, “The Dilemma” comes respectably close to the quality of his best dramas ““ “Frost/Nixon,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13″ ““ and, at the very least, neither Vaughn nor James sports a haircut as tragic as Tom Hanks’ Robert Langdon.
There are really only two scenes, in fact, when the film doesn’t work, and one of them is the “gay” car speech. But that scene ended up in the trailer, presumably because it has easy punch lines and an identifiable tone.
The rest of “The Dilemma” is much more ambiguous, with elements of drama and comedy, realism and absurdity, weaving in and out and blurring into one another. It’s a better movie for that quality, but clearly a much harder one to market.
We live in a world of sound bites, after all. News stories become headlines, politicians become talking points and scandals, albums become singles. We’re judging books by their covers and TV shows by their pilots.
How can we talk about “The Dilemma” in that way? It’s really not a romantic comedy, nor is it strictly a relationship drama. There is a gun and several punches thrown, but it’s definitely not an action thriller. If forced into a nutshell, it would be a well-made movie about people.
“The Dilemma” has made only around $33 million, I suspect, because “a well-made movie about people” doesn’t make a good tagline. Instead, we saw a vague campaign framing the film as a silly buddy comedy. And that title is so weak, it’s almost apathetic; we might as well call it “The Slightly Vexing Issue.”
This is America ““ we need something catchy to pull us away from updating our Facebooks and watching reruns of “Jersey Shore.” If you want to make a movie about ballet, include a lesbian sex scene. If you want to do a western, remake the one that earned John Wayne a contentious Oscar, give Matt Damon mutton chops and a tongue injury and cast a precocious 14-year-old girl in the lead role.
Whatever you do, don’t let your movie become “the one with the joke about gay cars.” That’s not a preconception that can be overturned by a few critics attesting to the film’s rather hard-to-define qualities.
We’re not a patient country ““ any second now, Kanye West might tweet, and we’ll all have something new to think about.
If you find yourself judging a movie by its tagline, e-mail Goodman at
“Pop Psychology” runs every Monday.
Goodman’s blog, “The Good pick,” runs every Monday at dailybruin.com/ae.