For about 15 years now, scientists in the laboratories of Hollywood have been trying to replicate the success of such films as “There’s Something About Mary” and “American Pie” — two movies that, at the twilight of the 20th century, managed to achieve the delicate alchemy of turning base humor into box office gold.
Both of those movies found the sweet spot — or, rather, the salty-sweet no man’s land between tender emotion and penis jokes — that few filmmakers, with the notable exception of Judd Apatow and a handful of others, have been able to consistently hit.
That’s why “Unfinished Business” is such a pleasant surprise. While by no means a masterpiece, the comedy, by Canadian director Ken Scott, is a careful calibration of crass gags and genuine sentiment that succeeds more often than it fails. It’s hard to imagine a movie that combines a scene set in a gay sex club (featuring numerous shots of male genitalia) with a subplot about parenting, but “Unfinished Business” is that thing.
Somehow, it works.
The film centers on Dan Trunkman (Vince Vaughn), a businessman struggling to get his small start-up off the ground. Specializing in the sale of metal shavings called swarf – just the word itself is funny — Dan’s company employs a morose 67-year-old named Tim McWinters (Tom Wilkinson) and a borderline developmentally disabled kid named Mike Pancake (Dave Franco, who is far funnier here than his brother James was in “The Interview”). As with “swarf,” many of the jokes have to do with Mike’s weird last name.
When the opportunity to close a big deal presents itself, these three misfits set out on a business trip that takes them to Berlin, where they encounter Dan’s former boss (Sienna Miller), competing for the same contract.
Hijinks, as they say, ensue. Along with the aforementioned sex club scene, there’s a protracted business meeting in a co-ed sauna, a bit of sex and drugs, and a running gag about the fact that the only hotel room that Dan can find in Berlin is a glass-walled “American Businessman” installation in a contemporary art museum. Miraculously, these dumb things are all more amusing than they deserve to be.
Most of the credit goes to Scott, who pulled off a similar trick in “Starbuck,” a surprisingly charming 2011 French-language comedy about a man who discovers that, due to a mix up at the sperm bank where he was once a donor, he is the father of 142 grown children. Scott attempted a repeat with the English remake “Delivery Man” (also starring Vaughn), but with mixed success. He’s a smart filmmaker, though, and he knows how to mine genuine sweetness, even out of the most vulgar material. Steve Conrad (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) is the screenwriter.
And let’s not forget the cast. Vaughn heads up a strong ensemble that also features Nick Frost and James Marsden as employees of the company that Dan is trying to do business with. Britton Sear and Ella Anderson also shine as Dan’s young children, both of whom are dealing with school bullying while Daddy is away on business. This substantial — and unexpectedly touching — subplot, conducted mostly on video chat, revolves around Dan’s long-distance parenting. Superficially, it has nothing to do with the rest of the story, but it helps to humanize and round out Vaughn’s character in ways that pay off and make us care about him.
Though “Unfinished Business” swerves and wobbles at times, Scott has an assured hand on the wheel. This hybrid vehicle may take a unwise detour here and there – even hitting a mud-filled pothole or two – but in the end you just might find that it’s been an entertaining ride.
“Unfinished Business” (21/2 stars)
Rating: R, for a lot of nudity and sexual humor, drug use and obscenity.