One of the pleasures of moviegoing is that it gives us a window into other people’s lives, often giving us insight into jobs that we’ll probably never hold. Over the course of a movie, we can learn a little bit about being a secret agent, a brain surgeon or a drummer — and the best scripts provide the right amount of information about that profession to impact the storytelling.
We might walk into “Casino” with no understanding of the gambling business, or “Locke” not knowing anything about a concrete pour, but over the course of those films we learn enough of the mechanics to make the plot more suspenseful and enthralling and to care about the characters and the stakes of their success or failure.
Sadly, no one behind “Unfinished Business” decided that audiences would get even a cursory explanation about the business part: Three salesmen form their own company and spend most of the film trying to close a deal that has something to do with swarf, a metal residue left over in the creation of large steel objects. Are they buying it? Selling it? The movie can’t be bothered to tell us.
Not that this comedy needed to be a documentary about its subject, but the fact that it can’t spell out the basics of this business deal — outside of some “robble robble projected income graph percentage closing” jargon that gets peppered throughout the screenplay by Steve Conrad (“The Pursuit of Happyness,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) — is indicative of a general lack of focus and an inconsistency in tone.
The film opens with Dan (Vince Vaughn) quitting his job over a five percent pay cut and loudly announcing that anyone who wants to join him in his new venture should meet him in the parking lot. The only ones who take him up on the offer are Tim (Tom Wilkinson), who’s being forced to retire, and Mike (Dave Franco), who didn’t actually work there but showed up for a job interview with a box of office supplies to prove his enthusiasm.
A year later, Dan and his team are flying off to Portland, Maine, to perform the all-important handshake to close their company’s first deal, but upon arrival, Dan bumps into his old boss, Chuck (Sienna Miller), who is out to trump her former employee. The battle to preserve the pact forces Dan, Tim and Mike to fly to Germany to meet with the buyer’s (seller’s?) big boss, and wackiness of a sort ensues.
On the one hand, “Unfinished Business” wants to be a hard-R comedy, with sojourns to a co-ed sauna (an uncomfortable sniggery scene) and the backroom of a Berlin gay leather bar (which admittedly pushes visible-penis-related humor pretty far for a mainstream Hollywood movie), in addition to a riot outside the G-8 Summit.
At the same time, however, the film keeps attempting to tug at our heartstrings, with Dan’s FaceTime attempts to be a good husband (a terribly underused June Diane Raphael plays the wife) and dad. Part of what drives Dan to close this deal is his desire to afford private school for his kids, which “Unfinished Business” unquestioningly presents as a solution for bullying.
The film can’t quite make up its mind about Franco’s Holy Fool character, either; we’re meant to laugh at his naïveté and his malapropisms at one moment, then we find out he’s a resident in a group home so we can admire his can-do attitude, and later it’s revealed that he has made valuable and intelligent contributions to the sales report even though he never indicates in conversation that he understands anything about the deal. These are pieces that might fit together in a smarter, stronger movie, but director Ken Scott (reteaming with Vaughn after the dreary “Delivery Man”) seems to mold the characters scene by scene rather than making them believable and consistent over the course of the story.
(And the less said on the dopey subplot about Tim’s unhappy marriage and his desire to have sex in new and interesting positions, the better, except that it leads to some of the film’s clumsiest, most leaden gags.)
Vaughn blusters in his usual manner, combining the swimming-up-career-stream desperation of his “The Internship” character with the brash-but-loving family guy of “Delivery Man,” but the remove he brings to every performance — as though he were putting everything in quotes — becomes more disconcerting the further away he moves from the young slackers he used to play.
Still, “Unfinished Business” isn’t a laugh-free experience — Nick Frost steals every scene as a business underling with a kinky side — and some of the comic set pieces actually work. It’s certainly the best thing Vaughn has done in the decade since “Wedding Crashers,” which makes it less of a raw deal than usual.