‘Unfinished Business’: Oddly touching comedy

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For Digital First Media

Have you ever heard of swarg? The term refers to an accumulation of fine metallic particles generated by the drill bit of a grinder or other machine tool.

In the new comedy, “Unfinished Business,” Vince Vaughn plays Dan Trunkman, an overbearing salesman for a St. Louis company that specializes in buying and reselling swarg. Screenwriter, Steve Conrad (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’), apparently thinks that sprinkling the film with a few funny-sounding names like swarg obviates the need for him to contribute anything substantively humorous to the script.

Witness the name of Dan’s hard-nosed supervisor, Chuck Portnoy. The character is portrayed by Sienna Miller. No — that isn’t a typo. The attractive blonde actress plays a character, who bears the decidedly male name, Chuck. The film never provides any explanation for this seeming incongruity. Then, there’s the name of anther salesman, Mike Pancake (Dave Franco). Well, hardy har har. Apparently, the screenwriter thought it was worthy of a recurrent riff about this unusual surname.

An early scene involves a rapidly escalating dispute between Dan and Chuck. Enraged by Chuck’s refusal to pay a promised bonus, Dan declares that he is quitting the company to start his own start-up firm. Dan invites all of the other salesmen to join him in the fledgling operation.

When Dan reaches the parking lot, he realizes that only two men have left the building. Timothy McWinters (Tom Wilkinson) is an experienced salesman with the company. At 67 has just been involuntarily retired. The other fellow is the aforesaid Mike Pancake. He had been on the building that morning, unsuccessfully applying for an unspecified job. Mike has never been a salesman or held any job for that matter. Nevertheless, desperate for personnel, Dan hires both men as salesmen.

Dan struggles to keep his company afloat. However, Dan has finally consummated a lucrative deal with a buyer. Inexplicably, in this day and age, with faxes, emails, and the legal enforceablity of virtual signatures, the film suggests that Dan and his entire team are required to fly to Berlin to close the deal with an old-fashioned handshake.

Dan and his employees arrive in Berlin to learn there are no hotel vacancies available. Dan is relegated to being part of a livable art exhibit. He is displayed behind glass walls for public view as a model of an American businessman. Meanwhile, Tim and Mike stay in a nearby youth hostel. Supposedly, Tim is too old to qualify for a room. So, he sleeps in corridor. All this supposed to be uproariously funny.

A  screen capture from a trailer to the film "Unfinished Business" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bM5vyZBQFA

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Unfinished Business” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bM5vyZBQFA

Dan learns that the deal isn’t a foregone conclusion after all. His former boss, Chuck, is in town, vying for the contract, which has been suspiciously opened. She seems to have a chummy antecedent relationship with Jim Spinch (James Marden), who is in Berlin on behalf of the prospective buyer.

While in Germany, Dan and his sidekicks have experiences which are putatively hilarious. They visit a gay fetish club. An incidental homosexual act takes place. Dan must track down one of his suppliers at a unisex spa. The scene includes random shots of naked bodies.

Originally titled, “Business Trip,” this vehicle took on the name, “Unfinished Business.” The title was previously used in no fewer than six prior movies. That includes a 1941 romance, which starred Irene Dunne in the lead, long before she played granny on long-running television comedy, “The Beverly Hillbillies” as well as a 2009 mockumentary from South Africa. Is there something inherent about the title, “Unfinished Business,” that made it irresistible to the filmmakers? It seems like a curious decision to switch the title to one that had been frequently used before.

From the results of test screenings, the producers apparently realized that they had a problem on their hands. After wrapping principal photography. Vaughan and Miller were forced to return to Boston in 2014 for re-shoots. That is hardly a good sign.

So, it came as no big surprise that “Unfinished Business” opened in tenth place with an anemic $4.8 million weekend gross. That made it the worst opening box office of any film, which featured Vaughan in the lead role. As a frame of reference, “Wedding Crashers,” another Vaughan vehicle, made almost $40 million in its first weekend on its way to eventually grossing $285 million worldwide.

Despite its raunchy humor and other offensive elements, “Unfinished Business” embodies a certain undeniable sweetness. Much of it derives from the revelation that Mike is developmentally disabled and lives in a halfway house. His reunion in the airport with his housemates after the excursion to Europe is genuinely touching. This is buttressed by an ongoing storyline, involving Dan and his family. Dan’s corpulent adolescent son. Paul (Britton Sear), is being mercilessly teased by his classmates. Dan’s plucky daughter, Bess (Ella Anderson), beats up a boy for making fun of her brother. His supportive wife, Susan (June Diane Raphael), also proves endearing. His familial context makes Vaughan’s motor-mouthed, hyperkinetic character seem almost palatable.

I cannot recommend “Unfinished Business” to causal filmgoers. However, if you have a perverse interest in seeing how many ways a film can go awry and still have some redeeming watchability, this would be an ideal candidate.

It is surprising to find so much vulgarity in a film, which depicts the accomplishments of a developmentally challenged adult and the rewards of parenting.  For all its crassness, “Unfinished Business” is an oddly touching comedy.

** ½ R (for a lot of nudity and sexual humor, drug use and obscenity) 91 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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