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Split decisions ; Could there be a touch of autobiography in Ron Howard's dark comedy on friendship and secrets?

So what do you do about catching a friend's cheating spouse in the act? That's what "The Dilemma" has going for it.

There is nothing even remotely theoretical about this dark comedy by Ron Howard. How many grown-ups in the world have actually been in Vince Vaughn's position in the film?

We may not be engineers trying to stop a conductorless train, or a 3-D superhero in a black mask, or a stuttering king of England, but when it comes to knowing far more than we should about others -- including best friends -- a solid majority of the human species can, as the colloquialism would have it, relate.

"The Dilemma" is a surprisingly dark comedy that -- I confess -- I was rooting for. I have two reasons: 1) It's directed by Ron Howard, one of those filmmakers in America who has, many times over, earned the benefit of any doubt, and 2) it stars Vaughn, who created a true American comic original onscreen -- the oversized, overloud, motormouthed, barroom jackass, the big bully-boy bloviator who's got opinions galore, words for every occasion (even though more than half are the wrong ones) and the anguished soul of a sniveling sissy inside his large, blundering, bluffing exterior.

Yes, he plays it all the time, but it's always funny to me.

He's the one who catches the wife of his best friend and business partner (Kevin James) in flagrante delicto.

It isn't that Howard hasn't made more than his -- or anyone else's -- share of crummy movies in his time. He has. But he's also made so many good ones -- usually distinguished by an innocent, almost naive sweetness about things somewhere within -- that it's churlish, I think, to go to a Howard movie wearing a prepackaged sneer.

To have good old likable Opie/Richie in charge of a Vaughn/James bromance about a guy trying to deal with the strayings of his best friend's wife is a nice old-school wrinkle in the new style of comic bromance that Judd Apatow brought into the world (where all the ersatz "heart" in the world can't conceal the soulless cynicism and repulsive TV sitcom childishness).

And now a brief word from the real world.

Howard, in life, has a best friend and business partner of more than two decades. His name is Brian Grazer, one of the reigning Hollywood moguls. They formed Imagine Entertainment together in 1986 (see TV shows like "Lie to Me" to appreciate the fruits of their business) and are still a close Hollywood partnership.

Howard has been married once throughout it all. Grazer has been divorced a few times through it all, the last time in the late-aughts after a 10-year marriage whose dissolution reportedly cost him a bundle of several million dollars.

Here, then, is a tale that Howard probably understands in every fiber of his being (and his producer Grazer, too). He may be along for the ridiculous ride when he makes baroque fantasies about secret cabals in the Vatican but with this movie, you can bet your bean sprouts that he, just like the rest of us, knows a thing or two from life.

So Vaughn and James play longtime automotive business partners with a solid idea they're trying to sell to the Dodge people: an electric muscle car, for public-spirited citizens who want to hear the growl and roar of a hungry speed monster under the hood while all the while they're saving the environment.

Big mouth Vaughn is the one who makes the insensitive pitch to the Dodge execs (The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, it's said, has already objected to the movie's use of the word "gay" in that scene -- to no avail with Howard). James is the genius back in the shop who gets it done.
Jennifer Connelly is Vaughn's girlfriend who'd say yes, yes, yes if he'd only ask. Winona Ryder is James' wife, straying after a 20-year marriage that's stalled in every crucial way.

If you ask me, Connelly -- one of the truly striking beauties in international moviedom -- looks, in some shots, to be skirting the outer rings of Pacific Coast anorexia, but it's none of my business what others consider a decent diet. I'm sure she's nothing if not nutritionally sound.

It's really not much of a stretch, in fact, to see Vaughn and James' environmental muscle cars as the equivalent of Howard and Grazer's longtime goals in movies -- smart, sensitive, big-name blockbusters.

Good, idealistic movies with box-office muscle ("A Beautiful Mind" anyone?).

I may be stretching here, but I'm betting on a certain amount of autobiography somewhere in "The Dilemma."

The movie, though, throws in some stuff about restaurant management and, especially, gambling addiction, all of which gives it a nice dark tinge and gives big-mouthed blunder-boy Vaughn some things to act besides so much glibness that his character could probably sell shoes to a snake.

Queen Latifah contributes her always benign presence to a small role, a nice addition to the Howard stock company if it turns out that way.

Major comedy it's not, but it's a whole lot better than all those Apatow and pseudo-Apatow comedy blockbusters.



The Dilemma

3 stars (out of 4)

Vince Vaughn tries to figure out what to do when he catches best friend Kevin James' wife cheating. With Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder and Queen Latifah, directed by Ron Howard.

Rated PG-13 for suggestiveness, language and adult themes.

Opening Friday in area theaters.

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