Unfinished Business, the new Vince Vaughn-fronted comedy from director Ken Scott (who previously teamed with Vaughn on 2013’s Delivery Man) and writer Steve Conrad (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), can’t decide what it wants to be.
In a pretty obvious sense, it’s a shamelessly crude comedy wherein the main trio is comprised of a smooth talking charmer who drops “F”-bombs quite a lot (Vince Vaughn), an old man (Tom Wilkinson), and a kid (Dave Franco) who is intellectually disabled (that’s not a joke—though the film positions it as one). Get it? Being old is funny, and so is being not smart. These guys run around, get into mischief, see a lot of boob and try to describe sexual positions to the youngster.
That’s part of the equation. The movie would also like to be about loving yourself, accepting you for you, no matter who bullies you, pushes you around, and kicks sand in your face. This goes for the big three—Dan Trunkman (Vaughn), Timothy McWinters (Wilkinson) and Mike Pancake (Franco)—but bleeds into all of the ancillary characters, including Dan’s family. This is some serious Horatio Alger, self-determination, up-by-your-bootstraps stuff, and it’s all warm and fuzzy and everybody hugs.
These two intentions clash awkwardly, as if two totally different movies, with two drastically incompatible tones, have been spliced together like a haphazardly shuffled deck of cards. Within moments we’re hurried from boner jokes and glory holes and old men doing ecstasy in a youth hostel to a father and son having a heartwarming discussion about being tough and not letting one’s bullies defeat one’s spirit—which, oddly enough, mirrors a conversation the father and son had earlier in the film about masturbation. I guess that’s a different kind of self-love.
As Unfinished Business begins, Dan butts heads with his boss, Chuck (Sienna Miller), so he decides to quit his demeaning sales job to start his own business. The only people who join him on this quest are—you guessed it—the elderly gentleman forced out due to unfair, mandatory age restrictions and the lovable buffoon who brings a box of office supplies to a job interview because he thinks it shows initiative. This new business is their one chance to keep themselves afloat—and to send Dan’s chubby son to private school, where he won’t be bullied anymore, because rich kids are known for their sensitivity—and together they embark on a wild, globe-trekking adventure to get the mythical “hand shake” that signifies a deal is done. This, of course, isn’t so easy, so they must endeavor to save their flailing business, enduring one crushing failure after another, but never giving up.
Watching Unfinished Business unfold, one feels like there must be more, like there’s got to be some deeply ingrained level of business satire hidden beneath all the boner jokes. Companies have meaningless names like Apex Select and Dynamic Progressive Service; they literally sell leftover metal shavings. Business men in business suits casually drop a jumble of assorted, generic business jargon, flashing some graphs on a computer screen. Most of it amounts to people walking around saying, “Business, business, business.” Couple this with parts in which Dan, Timothy and Mike become immersed in an avant-garde subculture of performance installation art, or in the middle of a European gay fetish festival, or on the front lines of a raucous protest at a G8 economic summit. It’s almost surreal, like an absurdist farce.
The film seems to have its lampooning sights set on art, politics, economics, familial relationships, business culture—practically every facet of modern commercial society. And when Unfinished Business loses itself to its own madness, there is the sense that its inherent weirdness is on the verge of coalescing into something big, brilliant and spectacular. But that never happens. Similarly, the film’s main narrative thrust doesn’t kick in until a year after Dan starts his company, but it’s like no time has passed. No one seems to know that Timothy’s marriage is a loveless shell, or that Mike didn’t actually go to college and lives in a halfway house. These are three people who have spent every day of the last year together, and they don’t know each other at all. It’s a pretty fit metaphor for what it must have been like to write this movie.
Vaughn is as charismatic as ever, but his character is all over the map, from loving father and doting husband to foul-mouthed best bud; the pieces don’t fit together and he often looks confused, like he’s wondering what he’s even doing there. Wilkinson has moments playing against his archetypal serious, straight type, though he’s too often just plain pathetic. Franco, at least, is consistent: He’s going to say or do something dumb, and it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s also intended to be kind of endearing because he’s so good-natured. He’s mistakenly set up as some kind of near holy figure—so simple, but somehow so wise, only not. Nick Frost shows up, steals a couple of scenes and is totally squandered.
Unfinished Business wants to be a lot of things: sentimental, raunchy, quick witted, touching. But its tone is so wildly inconsistent that its collection of running gags—like Dan’s repetitive voice over as he contemplates a project for his elementary school aged daughter, or Timothy wanting to experiment with a particular sex act—seem to be the only glue holding everything together. At one point, our trio is sitting in a grubby Berlin hostel, bong in hand, surrounded by travellers, all lamenting the modern world, the lack of privacy and feeling like an outcast for being different. Unfinished Business is this scene, like a bunch of people lazing about, getting stoned, throwing out ideas that sound fun, but occasionally stumbling into one that brings everybody down. So we pause to take a knee and get serious.
Director: Ken Scott
Writer: Steve Conrad
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, Dave Franco, Nick Frost, Sienna Miller, James Marsden
Release: March 6, 2015