Does Vince Vaughn do actual comedies anymore? Once the poster child for bros-behaving-badly fare, Vaughn has recently begun engaging in an interesting, occasionally perplexing bait-and-switch: Lure us with the promise of wild antics (the posters for Unfinished Business depict Vaughn and co-stars Tom Wilkinson and Dave Franco in various states of bacchanalia), then deliver something more somber and sensitive instead. Looking back over my review of Delivery Man, the 2013 sperm-donor comedy-drama Vaughn made with his Unfinished Business director Ken Scott, I see that I basically said the same thing then, too. So maybe I should stop being so perplexed.
But still. For its first half, Unfinished Business is surprisingly acerbic and serious, more Up in the Air than Office Space. It opens mid-conversation, as we see St. Louis mineral salesman Dan Trunkman (Vaughn) bickering with his ruthless boss Chuck (Sienna Miller — yes, you read that right) over a 5 percent pay cut. The next thing he knows, Dan has quit to form his own rival company and asked his co-workers to join him, à la Jerry Maguire. But the only two people who accompany him to the parking lot are Timothy (Wilkinson), a veteran employee who's been separately let go for being too old, and Mike (Franco), a young man who was only there for an interview. They all need the work, however: Dan has a son being bullied for his weight and a daughter unhappy at school, and his wife wants to send them to private school; Timothy really, really wants to divorce his wife, but he also wants to leave her a comfortable amount of money and go off on his own and live a little; Mike, it turns out, is a young man with special needs and could really use the confidence boost.
Dan's new company flounders, of course: One year later, it's still the same three guys, and their office is a Dunkin' Donuts. But then they find out that they may have scored a big deal with a major client, and they fly to Portland, then to Berlin, to make "the handshake," as it were. Things don't turn out as planned: Their trip to Berlin coincides with a G8 meeting (and concomitant protest), a marathon, and Europe’s largest gay fetish convention. Oh, and it turns out their supposedly done business deal is a bit shakier than promised.
Does any of this actually sound funny to you? It sounds potentially offensive more than anything else, like the kinds of jokes Vaughn and his cohort might have gotten away with 15 years ago. But amazingly, Unfinished Business has a gentle touch: Yes, they do run into the gay fetish scene, but it results in one of the more good-natured (and explicit) glory hole setpieces you'll see in a mainstream comedy. The tonally weird bits involving Mike’s dim antics are played somewhat for laughs, but they’re light ones; the film is clearly on the sheltered young man’s side, more interested in letting him explore than poking fun at him. Meanwhile, Timothy gets both the requisite horndog moments as well as some genuine pathos. At times, the film seems to be hinting at a darker theme of masculine identity: Our protagonists once saw themselves as the male breadwinners of yore; that world is changing, so their business trip has a weirdly elegiac feel. They don’t quite know how to operate in this new scene, but they’re learning. Alas, the movie doesn’t really do much with this subtext, maybe because it doesn’t quite have the depth or dexterity to do such a loaded subject justice.
Not unlike Delivery Man, Unfinished Business is a movie at war with itself: It wants to be serious — and it is — but it wants to try to deliver the comedic goods as well. Sometimes, the tonal dissonance works. At one point, Dan checks into what appears to be the last hotel room in Berlin; it turns out that it’s not technically a hotel room at all, but a piece of art — an exhibition of an American businessman in a hotel room, and he’s paying for the privilege of being gawked at by tourists. But the laughs here are dry, not uproarious, and they’re just unsettling enough to work.
There’s plenty to like in Unfinished Business, even though viewers expecting the debauchery of a Wedding Crashers will likely leave disappointed. I feel for Vince Vaughn, I really do. He clearly wants to explore this more serious vein, but he keeps having to sell his former high-concept persona. It’s a fascinating existential dilemma for a movie star to find himself in; if only it resulted in better movies.