The best acting job in “Unfinished Business” is turned in by Vince Vaughn. He spends the 91 minutes of this seriously laugh-starved comedy trying to pretend he doesn’t want to strangle Dave Franco.
Rare is the performance that inspires such instant loathing. But Franco, the shorter and toothier brother of James (if that is possible), plays a maddeningly annoying employee of a metal shavings brokerage that belongs to Vaughn’s character. His grinning, mousy-voiced, perhaps savant sexual innocent will drive you a little crazy. His upstaged co-stars certainly could be excused for throttling him between takes.
Dan Trunkman (Vaughn) gets tired of working for somebody else’s bonus and leaves his insufferable boss Chuck (Sienna Miller) to go into business for himself. He invites, Jerry Maguire-style, his colleagues to join him in revolt. Tim (Tom Wilkinson) has just been laid off, so, what the heck? And Mike Pancake (Franco) had a job interview and no prayer of being hired. Any prior experience?
“Reasons for leaving?”
“I didn’t like feet.”
A year later, the trio’s new firm is close to “the handshake,” closing a big deal. But the duplicitous heel they need to shake their hands (James Marsden) strings them along, making them the “fluffer” for this contract. Chuck may be their undoing. But not if their flights to Portland, Maine, and then Berlin — to pitch to the big bosses — pay off.
Vaughn plays it straight, going for a frustrated slow burn here. Franco tests that. His Pancake is meant to wring laughs out of simple, unschooled and inarticulate mispronunciations of simple words. “Exploits,” for instance. Tim is an old man in the last throes of a bad marriage who just wants to “experience joy” for once. He’s the one willing to drive this business trip into “Hangover” territory, hiring sex workers and trying ecstasy at the Berlin youth hostel he and Mike board in.
Screenwriter Steve Conrad (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) gives Dan a couple of comically problem kids — a boy being bullied because of his weight, a daughter not happy with public school, either. Dan’s been an absentee dad and longs for this deal to change that.
The desperation spills from the characters and this story — a gay fetish festival in Berlin, a rave at the aforementioned youth hostel — and into the filmmaking. “Unfinished Business,” the second film Vaughn has done with the slow-footed and sentimental Canadian Ken Scott (“Delivery Man”), groans under the weight of expected laughs, expectations that are rarely met.
Wilkinson, out of character as broad and randy, is funny, and Franco, as grating as he plays this guy, may wear you down a little. But you can see the fear in Vaughn’s eyes as another gag limps to its payoff, another scene fails to deliver anything but stony silence where the laughs are supposed to be.