I was thinking…
…comedies are rarely just comedies. For some reason, the comedic film genre has transformed several times through its lifespan. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s physical comedy of the silent era morphed into the musical comedy of the Marx Brothers. In the post World War II era, the songs remained but were joined by dance routines like those in Gene Kelly’s Singing in the Rain and On the Town. The Korean and Vietnam Wars added a cynical edge to a lot of comedic films in the next couple of decades, and then the 80’s hit. With those years came action comedies like Beverly Hills Cop, but also the absurdly stupid laugh flick, such as Weekend at Bernie’s. Rounding out the century were comedies geared toward the rising Generation X–films that were, again, aptly cynical.
Enter the modern era, where the raunchy comedy reigns supreme. Superbad, Knocked Up and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle all push the boundaries of good taste–delving into debauched sex, flagrant use of illegal narcotics and rampant alcohol abuse–and yet they are all somehow ironically tethered to a moral code of some sort.
Unfinished Business (not to be confused with the 1986 film about the Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps) is no different.
You’re probably scratching your head right now or scrunching up your face as you look at your screen, thinking, What? Moral code? You must be on something. What the crap are you talking about?
Well, instead of correcting your grammar regarding ending sentences with prepositions, I will tell you.
If anybody actually reads between Unfinished Business‘ lines, they will see the morality tale within its filmic pages. Although we can generally expect a significant degree of humor when we see Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers) or Dave Franco (Neighbors), we do not always expect our laughs to come on the tails of heartbreaking reality.
Vaughn plays a metal swarf (the shavings and filings created as a byproduct of machining) salesman named Dan Trunkman who leaves the employ of a large company once his unfeeling boss, Chuck, cuts his pay following his most successful year ever. Tired of spending his life in airports, barely seeing his family and kowtowing to a total cee-you-next-Tuesday of a boss (Sienna Miller–American Sniper), he quits. He immediately starts his own competing company with two fellow castoffs: Tim (Tom Wilkinson—Batman Begins, Rush Hour), who was let go for hitting the company age limit, and Mike Pancake (Franco) who had simply been there to apply for a job but had been rejected.
A year passes with little success until the fledgling group is given the opportunity to make a large enough deal to keep them all afloat for the foreseeable future. The two catches: they’re competing against Dan’s former employer and they need to fly to Berlin to fight for the deal.
This comes as unwelcome news to Dan who, already missing his family, discovers he’s more needed by them than ever. His teenaged boy is being bullied by literally all of his classmates and his little daughter requires his help with a project.
Reluctantly, the business trio embark for Germany and Dan finds he must be a father to his two fellow businessmen as well. Tim is unhappily married and seeking a new life, and Mike (whose surname causes several giggles, partially because of the innocent way in which Franco delivers it) is completely inexperienced. Although they do not really address it, it’s more than likely that Mike falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum, making him even more of a sympathetic character.
As the ever more penniless group prepare for a postponed meeting, they engage with the general insanity that is Berlin in September/October: Oktoberfest, the Folsom Street Fair (lots of gays in leather) and the G8 summit.
The general boredom of business is kept in the backseat throughout most of the film and it is slowly revealed that the “unfinished business” of the title has little to do with Dan’s desire to one-up his former boss. Trapped in a loveless marriage for most of his life, Tim feels he has missed out on all the splendor life has to offer. Mike’s eyes are just opening to an existence beyond the confines of the home where he lives with other young men who, mentally, find it difficult to function in the world. And Dan, whose surname betrays just how engaged in on-the-road-work he is, struggles to juggle the need to make money with the need to be a good, attentive and helpful husband and father. Indeed it is this latter issue that carries the most weight.
Even when confronting almost certain failure and destitution, he understands that handling the issues of his loved ones still takes precedence over the business world.
I am reminded of a quote from James E. McCulloch, a writer from nearly a hundred years past. In 1924, he wrote, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.“
This is the moral I found in this film. It stands high above any laugh (of which there are plenty), disgusting moment (there are several of those) or quest for revenge Unfinished Business can lob at us. When first you put your home in order, your outside world will follow suit.
Ammo Dump rating: 7 out of 10
I’ll talk more about this film and others during my radio show. Listen in every Friday afternoon starting at 4:10 on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on WJBC.com or the “I Heart Radio” app on your smart phone.
Run time: 91 minutes