Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll get stuck on a paragraph or a sentence, leave it half-developed, and come back to it later. But it has happened (more than once, I confess) that I’ve been under a tight deadline and, in my haste, have forgotten to return to the problematic section to polish it up before it went live.
Every scene in Unfinished Business feels like this. The entire movie gives the impression of having been sketched out hastily, a few place-filler jokes thrown in here and there, with the intention of coming back around later to nail down the final version. And then for some reason they filmed the rough draft. Rarely has a movie been given a more apt title than Unfinished Business.
It’s the story of a frustrated St. Louis businessman named Dan Trunkman (Vince Vaughn) who starts his own sales company with two castoff colleagues: Tim McWinters (Tom Wilkinson), who’s old and randy, and Mike Pancake (Dave Franco), who’s young and dumb. After a year of flailing, they get the chance to make a deal that will secure the company’s future. All they have to do is fly to Portland (Maine, not the good one), then unexpectedly to Berlin.
Three quirky dudes from three generations on a last-minute business trip together? Surely hilarity will have no choice but to ensue!
You’d think so, anyway. The screenplay is by Steve Conrad, whose previous credits include The Weather Man, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Promotion, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — all of which, like Unfinished Business, are about professional men learning important lessons about what matters most. (Family. It’s always family.) That’s an unusually specific niche, but props to Mr. Conrad for making a career out of it.
What’s baffling is that, despite so much experience with the subject, Conrad’s screenplay is half-baked. It’s full of setups that don’t pay off; characters who add nothing; subplots that only make the story murkier. For example, in Germany, Tim takes Ecstasy and goes to a dance club. You think: An old guy on drugs? OK, now we’re talking. (Wilkinson, a superb actor, could kill at a role like this in a better movie.) And then nothing. He stumbles around in a stupor for a bit. That’s all. Not only does hilarity not ensue, the film doesn’t even seem to try to MAKE it ensue.
In another scene, Dan’s wife (June Diane Raphael) calls him and starts talking dirty, unaware that she’s on speakerphone. Dan quickly tells her that Tim and Mike are there, and she abruptly changes the conversation. That’s all. She’s not really even embarrassed, since she knows Tim and Mike personally and didn’t say THAT much anyway. It’s like the movie set up a comedy scenario and then shut it down before it could get started.
And the movie is FULL of stuff like this. A bit where Dan feels like he ought to give up his first class airline seat to a soldier in uniform, but also really wants to keep it — amusing, but why is it here? It doesn’t tell us anything about Dan, nor does it move the story. All the details about his kids, a fat teenage son (Britton Sear) who’s being bullied and a firebrand little girl (Ella Anderson) who doesn’t like school — pointless. A gag where Tim orders a “sex maid” who goes to Dan’s room by mistake, while a real maid (whose uniform happens to look exactly like the one the prostitute wears) goes to Tim’s — again, vaguely funny, but abandoned before anything comes of it.
This is to say nothing of the things that happen that simply don’t make sense: Dan bringing his wife’s running gear instead of his own, and then wearing it for his morning jog anyway; the trio seeing a reindeer in the road 100 yards ahead and not even applying the brakes (then swerving at the last second and flipping the car); a scene which strongly implies that dumb Mike literally does not know how to have sex; etc.
Directed by Ken Scott (who also made Vaughn’s last bad movie, Delivery Man), Unfinished Business isn’t usually excruciating, just disappointing. And in fact it has something going for it that almost makes it worth watching: Dave Franco. Mike Pancake is a legitimately funny character, timid and fearful, unsure of his words, yet always grinning and eager to please. It’s a stellar performance of an underwritten character, and it moves Dave a few notches above James on the Francometer. The movie’s writer and director could take a lesson from him on applying oneself whole-heartedly to one’s work.
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