Jeremy Clyman Psy.D.

Reel Therapy

What Causes "The Dilemma"

What a bromantic comedy teaches us about suppression

Posted May 14, 2011

James Berardinelli, one of my favorite and most respected film reviewers, had this to say about 'The Dilemma (recently released to DVD):'

"This dramatic comedy provides tepid drama and mediocre comedy stirred together into a stew so uneven in tone and texture that it's likely to cause more than a few viewers indigestion. Among Howard's infrequent misfires, this is one of the most disappointing."

I watched this movie last night. I had high expectations. I had high expectations because I know that Ron Howard is as consistent and effective a director as there is in Hollywood. I know that Vince Vaughn and Kevin James are not just funny, they are complimentary and a potentially dynamic odd-couple tandem. I know that Winona Ryder, Jennifer Connelly, Channing Tatum and Queen Latifah makeup one hell of an ensemble cast. Finally, I know that the bromantic comedy genre continues to serve as one of the newest and most interesting genres in movies today.

My high expectations were not just met, they were surpassed. The movie had chemistry between the characters, momentum in the plotline, surprisingly funny comedic sequences, and genuinely heartfelt dramatic turns. Further, there was a crisp edge to the dialogue, and plenty of sub-textual meaning below the words. All in all, the film was a sophisticated, fun and worthwhile endeavor.

So what the hell was my favorite reviewer talking about? His scathing critique diverged rather dramatically from my perception of the film. While I was sitting in front of the television feeling entertained and fulfilled, Berardinelli was apparently shifting in his chair, uncomfortable and annoyed. What was I seeing that Berardinelli missed (hopefully it's not the other way around)?  

Well, let's back up a moment and note the plot. Vaughn and James play two best buddies whose lives are moving along nicely. They work together as business partners in the auto-industry. Vaughn is the salesman and James is the engineer. As a young start-up company, much of this side plot is about the undercurrent of apprehension and stress that unfolds as the two prepare for a career break or bust presentation with a major fortune 500 company. The other major side plot chronicles their respective romantic relationships. Vaughn, forever a ladies man, is slowly but surely committing himself to the lovable Connelly. The relationship between James and Ryder, on the other hand, comes to constitute the core of the film's dramatic tension and conflict. Their relationship appears stable and healthy on the surface, but this illusion is popped early on as Vaughn unintentionally catches Ryder in the midst of an affair with a heavily tatooed Tatum.

You can see where this is going, and why the film is entitled "The Dilemma." To tell or not to tell - that is the question that plagues Vaughn. Although he wants to tell James the upsetting secret right away he chooses not to (for a host of good and not so good reasons). This plot twist brings a layer of seriousness to the story as suppression now becomes the main character.

Suppression does not get much limelight in the media as a significant psychological process but its effects can be devastating. Emerging research on concealable-stigma populations that are prone to suppression (think of the LGBT community members whose sexual identity is stigmatized by the public, and can be kept secret if so desired) is developing a pile of disturbing facts and astute observations about the subject. As it happens, many of the empirical findings on suppression match the plot and character developments in "The Dilemma."

For instance, research suggests that suppressed material becomes more shameful over time, making the information feel even more negative simply because it has been labeled by the mind as a secret that must be stuffed. Indeed as Vaughn conceals the secret of Ryder's affair he begins to view himself in an increasingly critical manner, and evaluates the consequences of divulging the secret with an escalating sense of catastrophy.

The second major theme in the suppression literature is that it impairs performance across domains of functioning (cognitive, social, physical). The secret does not exit consciousness in a neat and orderly fashion. It stays in the background of one's mind and diverts finite attentional resources away from the task is at hand. Vaughn's ability to wow clients with his sales pitches suffers, as does his ability to articulate himself smoothly around James and Connelly. He literally stammers and fumbles in conversations as a result of the secret.

***To understand what this cognitive disruption feels like you should take the Stroop Test, where you are asked to scan a list of words that say things like 'red' but are spelled in 'green' ink. You have to say aloud the color of the ink while ignoring the way the word is spelled. You can almost feel your mind slowing down.

Other effects associated with suppression have to do with emotional and physical wear-and-tear. It is exhausting and upsetting to keep a secret. Even if keeping the secret is adaptive (as when a gay individual stays in the closet because his family/community is homophobic) it is still a form of avoidance that keeps conflicts unresolved and, in turn, keeps ruminative thinking in the back of the mind and negative emotions close to the surface (When can I get this off my chest? How is it going to go? Am I doing the right thing? Now, I'm feeling shaky and irritable). As a result, impairments in concentration, sleep and mood stability tend to develop and persist. Indeed, as the film unfolds, Vaughn takes on a more haggard and disheveled version of his former self. He's more emotionally reactive to others (loses his mind in a street fight with Tatum) and you can practically see the cortisol (stress hormone) coursing through his veins, and the bags developing under his eyes.    

There are social consequences as well (though research is a little less clear in this area). This likely stems from such rules of human nature as poor mind-reading abilities. We are all bad at accurately taking the perspective of another. Moreover, we are worse at this ability than we think we are. Thus, when Connelly observes Vaughn's distress and thinks that he's getting cold feet about their relationship, she is wrong but the misinterpretation goes uncorrected. Before long a secret that has nothing to do with Vaughn and Connelly's relationship is having a profoundly disruptive effect, as conflict and a sense of disconnection threatens to push them apart.   

And, oddly enough, Vaughn's experience with suppression pales in comparison to the less-discussed, more intense secrets harbored by Ryder and James. Their relationship has been strained for a long time, and it's their identities that are truly tied to the affair-secret. Vaughn's perception of himself as a good friend may suffer as he keeps the secret, but it is Ryder who is suppressing her identity as the adulterer and James who is suppressing his pesona as an unfaithful, neglectful husband. Correspondingly, the brutal consequences of suppression take its toll: for much of the film Ryder resembles an unlikable bitch and James turns into a pathetic mess (that was harsh - they are good people under a lot of strain).

And although suppression causes all this chaos, it is well-handled by the characters. Vaughn has a healthy attitude about suppression and moves timidly but steadily toward an honest reckoning. Further, all the characters are essentially well-intentioned and healthy. It's just that they are momentarily reduced to lower quality people because of suppression's psychologically shattering effects. In the end, everyone does what is hard as the truth comes out and flaws are recognized and addressed.

I think Berardinelli's critique stems from a misunderstanding. He does not recognize the presence of suppression. He does not acknowledge that suppression is being realistically portrayed in all its consequences and complexities. He does not see how the characters are suffering and wrestling with suppression in imperfect yet noble ways. It's not that movie can't decide on its identity as a drama or comedy (as Berardinelli implies), but that the movie is about suppression, and suppression is neither light and fluffy nor does it possess a nice and even tone.

About the Author

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., is a forensic and clinical psychologist.

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