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Ron Howard goes for laughs in ‘Dilemma’

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Director Ron Howard has long focused most of his attention on fare more soul-searching (“Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Frost/Nixon”) than gut-busting, but he still has a thing for yuks.

Due partly to his executive producing on and narrating of Fox’s critically acclaimed (but ultimately canceled) sitcom “Arrested Development,” which ran from 2003-06, he “didn’t feel like I’d lost touch entirely” with that side of himself.

His newest flick, “The Dilemma,” a Chicago-shot buddy-esque dramedy starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, opens wide Friday. Rife with off-the-wall physicality (Vaughn’s especially), it also features many moments of quiet introspection and heartfelt emotion. Award-winning dramatic actors Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder play it straight.

“Because the movie’s kind of edgy, I always wanted to make sure we got every bit of comedy that we could get out of the story,” Howard said.

The quintessentially Chicago art form of improvisation helped.

“We kept working on the script, and we had a strong script from [Chicago native] Allan Loeb, but I really wanted the actors to really own it,” Howard explained. “And in this case, Vince is such an inspired improv artist. The origin of his talent and his career was the improv scene here in Chicago. So I wanted to maximize that. And I’ve had some situations in my career where improv really, really made a difference.”

An ad-libbed segment of Howard’s 1985 film “Cocoon” came to mind. It features Wilford Brimley and his grandson talking, realistically and unscripted, while fishing.

As a result, Howard said, “it became this two-minute gem of a scene that people really remember. And it was a great lesson to me that improv doesn’t have to only be in service of laughs. It can also be in service of discovering the really surprising human elements in the characters.”

As Vaughn said at a gathering of journalists last summer, “It’s important to know where the scene needs to end … it’s not about coming up with clever references that are just interesting for that sake. It’s really about, ‘What’s a different way to get to the same end result?’ Sometimes doing a fresh thing is good because you can get burnt out.”

For Ryder, the process of going off-script initially was jarring.

“I’m not going to lie. I was really terrified in the beginning,” she said at the premiere. “But we did this thing in L.A. before we came out here, sort of a workshop thing for a few days, and I was terrified when I first got there. But they were so kind and generous and warm — Ron and Kevin and Vince — that something weird happened and I just sort of felt OK about it and I started slowly doing it. It was sort of working on the script and rehearsal, but riffing on things. And by the end I was like, ‘Oh, this is so fun, because I never really did that before.’ ”

Besides improv, Howard relied on numerous test screenings to help tweak the material and determine “just the right balance of the comedy and the pacing and the heart and the emotional side of the story.”

A fan of James L. Brooks’ “As Good as It Gets” and Billy Wilder’s classic “The Apartment,” he has a preference for comedy with a sometimes dark soul — “where there are big laughs and funny stuff and yet, when people are hurting, they’re really hurting.”

The expression of that hurt, of course, differs from writer to writer and director to director. And though he’s reluctant to tag “The Dilemma” as “Midwestern” in tone, Howard allowed that actors in coastal comedies — a Woody Allen film, for instance — might be less demonstrative.

“Contemporary comedy is always about pain and how people manage awkward situations,” he said. “And in New York/L.A. movies, they’re liable to be a little more confused about it. Here, especially with a character like Vince’s, there’s a sort of ‘All right, let’s try this!’ and just kind of charging into it until you slam into a wall. And so it’s a lot less angst and a lot more action. And the baring of the soul is a little more of an event.

“In ‘The Dilemma,’ when people sit down and really say what they’re feeling, it’s something that becomes a significant turning point in the story and not something you’re particularly geared toward or comfortable with. And so that’s a different kind of a comedy scene — a guy who’s feeling something but won’t really say it, and then acts, vs. somebody who’s neurotically spinning.”

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