Just as a person cannot be all things to all people, no comedy can be funny to all audiences. Unfinished Business is the second collaboration between Ken Scott and Vince Vaughn, after 2013’s transient Delivery Man. It’s a film that casts a wide net, attempting to balance warmth and raunch. The result is a lukewarm effort, proving conclusively that a film cannot wear its heart on its sleeve while giving polite society the middle finger.
Vaughn stars as Dan, a mid-level employee at a company that sells swarf, the leftover metal from large construction projects. When his boss Chuck (Sienna Miller, American Sniper) tells him he’s getting a 5 percent pay cut, he announces that he’s going to start his own company and loudly invites his fellow employees to jump ship with him. The only two willing to do so are Tim (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton), who was let go for being too old, and a young man who happened to be applying for a job that day named Mike Pancake, played by Dave Franco (21 Jump Street).
A year later, with his small business is on the verge of insolvency, Dan, Tim, and Mike fly to Portland to get the handshake on a company-saving deal only to find that Chuck’s company is vying for the contract as well. The fight seal the deal sends them to Berlin, where shenanigans ensue, as Dan finds himself in the middle of Oktoberfest, the protests of the G8 Summit, and the world’s largest gay street festival. I know that sounds pretty wild, but really… it isn’t.
Unfinished Business is a film going through a massive identity crisis. Penned by Steven Conrad, who also gave us The Pursuit of Happyness and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the film’s script is a tonal mess. The plot is built for a rude, frantic comedy; that’s certainly how the film’s been advertised. Yet Conrad and Scott constantly pull the film back into PG-13 family territory. Dan’s relationship with his children, both facing challenges with bullying, takes what should have been a minor subplot and inflates it to a central piece of the film. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a prolonged scene featuring a Skype session about bullying. It’s just a little disorienting coming on the heels of an ecstasy fueled rave.
There are other issues at work beyond tonal inconsistencies. For a film with the word business in its title, there’s very little thought put into the deal that’s driving the whole charade. With swarf, Unfinished Business might have actually topped The Office’s Dunder Mifflin Paper Company for most random and numbingly boring product to sell, but the film never elaborates on it, content to spew out percentage points and corporate gibberish that make the whole exercise seem pointless. Of course the deal is a McGuffin, but with so little substance, there’s nothing to disguise it as anything other than convention. Again, none of this would matter if the film were more about the antics than the central plot, but alas, Scott and Conrad are determined to make us care about this deal. And that’s a tall order.
The script is filled with bits that don’t work, characters with meager and unconvincing motivation, and general laziness. Wilkinson’s character in particular suffers from a severe case of “filler character,” and his motivation for scoring the deal has something to do with getting enough money so he can divorce his wife but leave her a nest egg… just don’t think about it. Perhaps the script’s largest sin is the homework assignment that Dan’s daughter asks him to fill out, asking him to describe himself in one sentence. This becomes a lazy way for Dan to monologue about himself with wince-inducing insight. With such a focus placed on the more emotional aspects of the script, the racier bits feel out of place, in particular a needless trek out to a nude spa, because who doesn’t love boobs?
Unfinished Business does have some genuinely funny moments, and there are times that you get can get a sense of what the film might have been. There’s the hotel room Dan books that turns out to be an enclosed piece of performance art, a hilariously uncomfortable glory hole bathroom scene, and more than a few choice lines that buoy the film out of its standard depths of mediocrity. Dave Franco’s profoundly naïve Mike Pancake might border on caricature, but he provides some of the funniest lines of the film, and remains fun to watch throughout. Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz) nearly steals the show, commanding every scene he’s in, and Vaughn turns out his best performance in years. Unfortunately, these are diamonds in the very, very rough.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
It’s difficult to figure out exactly who Unfinished Business is for. Viewers looking for a naughty romp through Europe will come away disappointed with the amount of time the film spends on its strong family values. Fans of heartwarming, family fare might find the number of penises on display a little distracting. Unfinished Business attempts to be the responsible parent and the cool uncle all at once, and Ken Scott never brings all the pieces together. Some of them still work on their own, but many never escape the fight against one another. Unfinished Business is definitely not an unpleasant ride, but your time might be better spent on a film that knows what direction its moving.