Part of the appeal of Vince Vaughn has been his unpredictable, combustible demeanor; how he can shift, in a matter of seconds, from a smooth talking everyman to a screaming maniac. But in recent years, his mellowness has taken over. Those outrageous spikes in energy, which served him so well in things like “Swingers” and “Wedding Crashers” (and, even to a degree, his woefully miscast role in Steven Spielberg‘s “Lost World“), has ebbed away, leaving behind an actor who is more comfortable with the lukewarm waters of “Delivery Man” or, god forbid, “The Internship.” The spark is gone, and nowhere is that more apparent than in “Unfinished Business,” a so-called comedy that has been marketed as a bawdy, dudes-on-a-business-trip lark, but instead plays like a largely unfunny drama that snuffs out any vitality Vaughn might have possessed.
“Unfinished Business” opens with a confrontation between Vaughn’s Dan Trunkman and his superior, Chuck (Sienna Miller). Dan is outraged and leaves the office, threatening to start his own company. In the parking lot, he’s greeted by fellow outcasts ready to join his new cause — Timothy McWinters (Tom Wilkinson), who has “aged out” of his job but still wants to work, and Mike Pancake (Dave Franco), who was just at the office for an interview. Together, they form a new company, but a year later are still struggling, working out of a Dunkin’ Donuts and trying desperately to secure a handshake agreement on a new deal that will keep them afloat.
This handshake deal, of course, sends the three misfits first to Portland, and then on to Berlin, locations that seem to have been chosen for their vaguely exotic qualities and the fact that they probably have outstanding tax incentives. The team thinks they’ve locked up the deal, but of course Chuck shows up, just to make bawdy jokes and scowl menacingly at her former colleagues. Also, the G8 Summit, a marathon, and Europe’s largest gay fetish convention are all happening at the same time that the boys struggle to chose the deal, just in case the possibility of wacky exploits wasn’t high enough.
Except that those wacky exploits never really come to pass, and when there are flashes of that stuff (from a wilder, more unhinged version of the movie, perhaps left on the cutting room floor), they are so tonally incongruous that they stop the movie dead in its tracks. Instead, “Unfinished Business” is a mostly soggy drama about Vaughn’s relationship with his troubled children (a fat teenage son who is being constantly bullied at school and a younger daughter who has anger issues), conveyed through dopey FaceTime conversations in the midst of his other shenanigans. Needless to say, it doesn’t work.
Even things that are supposed to be funny wind up being maudlin and off-putting, like both Dave Franco and Tom Wilkinson’s characters. Wilkinson is first portrayed as an old horn dog, but then it’s revealed that he’s deeply unhappy and wants to leave his “cruel” wife, but not without first securing the money from the deal that will allow for a good divorce settlement. Franco is initially the dumb sidekick, until you learn that he’s actually got some learning disabilities and lives in a halfway home with other, similarly affected dudes. Keep in mind that this was a movie that was advertised with a poster featuring Wilkinson stroking the head of a man dressed, head-to-toe, in gay fetish leather.
And, true, there is that stuff. Nick Frost shows up, only to be relegated to second-banana and forced to endure a painfully unfunny sequence where he’s speaking to Vaughn while his penis is protruding from a glory hole in a gay nightclub. There are also a few sequences with bare breasts, including a baffling topless pillow fight, the exact context of which is still a bit unclear, and a moment where Vaughn has to enter a coed nude sauna to lock down one of the details of the master plan to save his company. Each gag is lamer and more tone deaf than the next (complete with a faux “jazzy” score by David Holmes wannabe Alex Wurman), especially when contrasted with the next doom-and-gloom domestic crisis Vaughn is saddled with. (Which also includes his wife pushing him to enroll his son in private school, which he can’t afford unless the deal closes).
What makes “Unfinished Business” even more befuddling is the fact that the script was written by Steven Conrad, a writer who impressively marries the comedic and tragic in movies like “Wrestling Earnest Hemingway” and Gore Verbinski‘s deeply under-appreciated “The Weather Man.” Sometimes there are glimpses of what the movie could have been, if a more ambitious and confident director had gotten a handle on the material and not thought, instead, of the most appropriate place so wedge a topless pillow fight. There’s one solid recurring gag wherein Vaughn has accidentally rented a hotel room in a museum, so that his banal business trip routine becomes the sensation of Berlin’s art world. But there’s not enough payoff for the gag, and even something as conceptually sound as that gets muddled in the execution. The film was directed by Vaughn’s buddy Ken Scott, who helmed “Delivery Man” (and “Starbuck,” the film “Delivery Man” was based on) and doesn’t seem to have a cinematic bone in his body. How this, one of the ugliest movies in recent memory, was shot by the same cinematographer that handled Robert Altman‘s gorgeous “Kansas City,” is a mystery for the ages.
“Unfinished Business” is the type of movie that is so awful that as it rolls along (its 91-minute runtime feels agonizing) you get more and more restless. By the time the end credits started to roll, I was standing near the exit, with my jacket on, ready to make a clean break. It’s hard to remember back when Vaughn seemed like one of the more exciting actors in Hollywood, taking on risky projects like Gus van Sant‘s “Psycho” and being dubbed the second coming of Bill Murray. These days, he’s better at being the punch line than delivering them, and his work in “Unfinished Business,” stiff and unfocused and strained for any kind of credibility or realism, might be the worst of his career. He’s poised for a professional rejuvenation with the second season of “True Detective,” and honestly it can’t come soon enough. [F]