A comedy with its heart in the right place and everything else bizarrely out of joint, “Unfinished Business” finds director Ken Scott following 2013’s “Delivery Man” with another dubious attempt to sell audiences on Vince Vaughn’s sensitive side. Playing a down-on-his-luck family man who takes an ill-advised business trip to Berlin with two unfunny sidekicks in tow (Tom Wilkinson and Dave Franco), Vaughn is admittedly the least of the movie’s worries: Awkwardly wrapping a heartwarming message of self-acceptance in a layer of crude sexual humor, it’s like a date who tries to pat you on the back with one hand while feeling you up with the other. As such, “Unfinished” looks unlikely to do much business, or to end the nearly decade-long string of mediocrities (“Fred Claus,” “Four Christmases,” “The Dilemma,” “The Watch,” “The Internship”) that has plagued its star, whose fans are advised to keep whetting their appetites for the second season of “True Detective.”
Whereas “Delivery Man” starred Vaughn as an underachieving, over-procreating man-child, Scott’s latest film casts him as the much more responsible Dan Trunkman, a St. Louis husband and father who loves his wife (June Diane Raphael) and two kids, but sometimes neglects them in his efforts to get his professional life back on track. In a prologue that suggests a discarded subplot from “Horrible Bosses,” we see Dan quitting his job in the highly competitive mineral sales industry, fed up with his ball-busting superior, Chuck (Sienna Miller). Now he’s striking out on his own as head of Apex Select, a fledgling company he’s founded with two less-than-promising associates: Tim (Wilkinson), a sad-sack former colleague who’s past retirement age, and Mike (Dave Franco), a friendly young tagalong who’s a few compartments short of a briefcase.
A year later, Dan seems to have successfully negotiated for Apex to be acquired by a massive firm called the Benjaminson Group — at least until he realizes that his company is being treated as “the fluffer,” a sort of decoy for a much bigger deal involving Dan’s former employer, placing him in direct competition with the sneering Chuck. Although he knows he doesn’t have a chance against the big boys (and girl), determined Dan insists on flying with Tim and Mike to Berlin, where they hope to convince Benjaminson’s corporate overlords to reconsider. Amid the ensuing shenanigans, he must not only thwart Chuck and her slick confidant (James Marsden), but also make time for pep talks with his overweight teenage son (Britton Sear) and unhappy young daughter (Ella Anderson), who are having trouble fitting in at school. It’s tough being a man, in other words — or so goes the logic of a movie where women tend to fall into the categories of bitchy boss, supportive spouse and nameless lust object.
This brand of underdog/misfit dramedy is familiar enough territory for screenwriter Steve Conrad, whose scripts have largely centered around the funny-sad spectacle of an ordinary guy trying to transcend his glum material circumstances — most recently in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and before that in “The Weather Man” and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” still the best film produced from his work. If “Unfinished Business” feels like the worst, it’s because unlike its predecessors, it’s been forced to operate like an overly broad sex farce, a genre for which neither Conrad nor director Scott demonstrates any particular flair or conviction.
When Dan, Tim and Mike stroll into a unisex spa in Berlin to approach a potential business ally, the movie feels noticeably more embarrassed than any of the characters onscreen; communal nudity is nothing to be ashamed of, but writing this witless is another story. It’s not the only time the filmmakers try to appropriate Berlin’s sexually permissive culture for comedic purposes: As luck would have it, the men’s visit happens to coincide with the Folsom Europe festival, the continent’s biggest gay fetish event. It’s not every mainstream comedy that extols family values in one scene and visits a glory-hole-studded men’s room in another, and the resulting hangout sequence (so to speak) just about works, thanks to Nick Frost’s disarmingly sweet performance as a forlorn but very well-endowed leather enthusiast.
Still, it’s hard to deliver a good buddy comedy when two of the buddies in question are such narrative deadweights. If Franco emerges from his brother’s shadow one day, it’ll probably be for a role that requires him to do more than grin like an idiot, butcher the English language, and model adventurous sexual positions with various Teutonic babes. Meanwhile, watching randy old Tim do things like enlist the services of a naughty French maid is enough to make you weep, if only because you wish Wilkinson had made it through his career without having to utter the words “I’m not seeing enough titty.” That leaves Vaughn as the anchor, and he manages well enough despite having to tamp down his rude comic energy. The not-so-dirty little secret to the actor’s appeal is that he’s always been a winning screen presence, even (or especially) at his most vulgar and motormouthed, which makes these recent pics feel particularly superfluous in their attempt to show the actor’s more likable side.
While Scott and his team offer a fairly rushed approach to capturing their European surroundings — a glimpse of the Berlin Marathon, an Oktoberfest bacchanal, a violent protest outside a G8 summit — the movie does boast one clever touch, when Dan finds himself forced to inhabit a public hotel room-cum-art installation. It’s a setpiece that nicely distills all the sincere things Scott and Conrad are trying to say about the increasing transparency of American life — now devoid of privacy, overrun by social media, and deadly to anyone who chooses not to conform — rather more effectively than the movie in which they’ve chosen to say it.