“Unfinished Business” Review: Doesn’t Close the Deal
Dan Truckman (Vince Vaughn) is fed up. He has been a mid-level cog at a company that sells scrap metal, and his boss seems hellbent on devaluing his contributions to the firm. Finally mustering up the courage, Dan quits and vows to start his own competing scrap metal company. In the parking lot, he meets an elderly former co-worker named Tim (Tom Wilkinson) who has just been forced out of the firm due to mandatory age restrictions. He also meets a well-meaning, simple kid named Mike (Dave Franco). The three form a new company with a great deal of zeal and optimism. However, after one year in business, their company is treading water and a promising deal with a major client, requiring a trip to Berlin to give a presentation, may be the only thing that can keep them afloat.
Road trip comedies are their own filmic institution, and when one considers that the automobile and the moving picture both came into their own around the same time, it’s not difficult to understand the longstanding symbiotic relationship. While it is true that Unfinished Business‘ comedy is not strictly confined to a road trip–because it would be rather difficult to drive from St. Louis, Missouri to Berlin–the signposts and rest stops are very much the same. The jokes are mostly exaggerations of the universal frustrations of business travel and the classic fish-out-of-water, stranger-in-a-strange-land tourist pitfalls. To this end, there are moments in Unfinished Business that do arouse more than a few chuckles.
The issue with the film, however, is that these elements are scattered and so painfully disconnected from one another that Unfinished Business feels like it was shot from an unfinished draft of the script. There is a tonal schizophrenia at work here that never resolves itself. One the one hand we have a dopey idiot in Dave Franco who literally deals with nudity by shouting out the words, “butt cracks” over and over again. Total high-brow. But then we have a rather serious subplot about Vaughn’s overweight, oppressively bullied son who takes to stealing eye shadow hoping to fit in with the already outcast goth kids. That’s not to say comedy can’t have an emotional anchor. All the better when it does, in fact. However, when a movie tries to juggle tones from one sequence to the next without properly establishing any of those tones individually, what should feel multifaceted instead feels like an identity disorder.
Shooting back over to Dave Franco’s character Mike Pancake (yes, you read that correctly) for a moment, Unfinished Business makes that aggravating comedy mistake of trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the level of reality in which it wants to reside. Franco is so over-the-top in his intellectual deficiency that at certain points in the movie, he doesn’t understand the meaning or pronunciation of fairly simple words. In all fairness, past comedies have achieved great success with audiences by standing on the shoulders of morons, but only when those characters are established as existing in a world that, while resembling our own, is operating at much higher levels of absurdity. Unfinished Business, however, takes place in the world of scrap metal vending and construction material recycling. It’s about as ordinary and grounded a world as one can get. Yet somehow we are expected to believe that Dave Franco, during an off-screen scene, magically convinced multiple vendors to lower their prices?!
Which is it movie? Is Mike Pancake a barely functional man-child or a corporate mogul? Let’s take this one step further, we could have accepted both scenarios to be simultaneously true–that maybe he is some sort of savant–if we had ever seen his character prove even the least bit adequate in a presentation or business deal. The only time we see him do anything business-related, he mouth stumbles his way through a Power Point; providing the sad cherry atop an already disastrous meeting sundae. We are only told of his business prowess, a prowess that defies everything we know about him, and are expected to accept it as fact. Even The Office was smart enough to feature multiple moments wherein socially inept Michael Scott is able to turn it on in a meeting and prove to be an amazing salesman. It seems a small quibble, but this is part and parcel of Unfinished Business’ larger issues with wanting to be several movies at once.
It should be mentioned that Vince Vaughn has apparently finally learned to slow his cadence of speech. In the past, Vaughn’s approach to comedy has appeared to be to fire as many quips and snide remarks at the audience as quickly as he can so they don’t have an opportunity to evaluate whether what he’s saying is actually funny. He would usually compliment this by flying off the handle in certain scenes as the inevitable conclusion of that fast-burning joke fuse. In this film, however, Vaughn is much more like his character from Dodgeball, which is in this writer’s opinion his most likable lead. In Unfinished Business, Vaughn’s character is tense, he is frustrated with the stupidity and injustice of the world in which he operates, but he is also genuine, caring, and surprisingly even-keeled even when circumstances throw him the biggest curve balls.
All in all, the imbalance of tones and implementation of wacky gimmicks that far exceed the limits of the established reality of the film will likely lead Unfinished Business to being an unremembered comedy in a mere six months.
How Does It Stack Up?
Unfinished Business vs. Planes, Trains & Automobiles
It’s almost completely unfair to compare these two films. Whereas Unfinished Business feels like another in a long line of forgettable road comedies, John Hughes‘ Planes, Trains & Automobiles is one of the very best of the genre. However both films do have that Murphy’s Law effect of everything that can go wrong indeed going wrong for the weary travelers. The biggest difference however is that while both films underscore the comedy with serious family dynamic issues that create drama, Planes, Trains & Automobiles manages to utilize these heavier moments just right so as to actually add to the plot and complicate the characters where Unfinished Business can’t seem to find the right measures for that tempo change.
Advantage: Planes, Trains & Automobiles
Unfinished Business vs. Identity Thief
Both Unfinished Business and Identity Thief are, again, road comedies. Whacky things occur during the course of both trips, of course, but more than the divergence in reasons for the central trips of the two films–closing a business deal and bringing to justice the person who stole our hero’s identity respectively–the biggest difference between the two films is the degree of amiability within the leads. Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, and Dave Franco have their personality flaws, but Unfinished Business well establishes that they are all decent guys and gives us reasons to root for them. Astoundingly, we are also asked to like Melissa McCarthy‘s character in Identity Thief despite the fact that she routinely ruins people’s lives just because she can. “But don’t you feel bad for her because she’s lonely?” No, Identity Thief, that doesn’t justify her rampant financial sabotage of total strangers.
Advantage: Unfinished Business