Vince Vaughn Is in Desperate Need of a Reinvention

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“In Hollywood,” Eric von Stroheim famously said, “you’re only as good as your last picture.” These days, the assumed appendix seems to be, “so get your next one lined up before your last one tanks,” a principle unquestionably present in this week’s unfortunate box office. At the top of the slowest weekend of the year was Chappie; director Neill Blomkamp was wise enough to land his cherry gig helming the next Alien picture before critics (29% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences ($13.3 million opening weekend) got a look at his mash-up of Short Circuit and a Die Antwoord music video. And then, way down at the bottom of the top ten, was Unfinished Business, logging a miserable $4.8 million, the fifth flop in a row for star Vince Vaughn and a performance that would no doubt prompt the “Is Vince Vaughn over?” question, had he not already landed a much-ballyhooed spot in the cast of True Detective’s second season. So instead, the question becomes, “And what then?”

Let’s put Unfinished Business’ bombing in full context: a decade ago, this kind of opening for a rowdy, R-rated Vince Vaughn comedy was unthinkable. In the summer of 2005, he fronted Wedding Crashers, a legitimate word-of-mouth smash and still one of the highest-grossing R-rated movies of all time. He followed it with several more mainstream comedies (The Break-Up, Fred Claus, Four Christmases, Couples Retreat), movies that were both tremendously profitable and, for the most part, not very good.

But by 2011, the bloom was off the rose. The Dilemma was a disappointment (its $48 million domestic gross was reasonable, but not compared to its $70 million budget), The Watch failed in spite of the presence of Jonah Hill and Vaughn’s Dodgeball co-star Ben Stiller, and even a reunion with Wedding Crashers’ Owen Wilson couldn’t get people to see the feature-length Google ad The Internship. Vaughn subsequently blamed its low grosses on the PG-13 rating — an excuse, wouldn’t ya know it, that you can also apply to the 2013 sperm-donation flop Delivery Man. But Unfinished Business is a big, fat, R-rated comedy, its trailer loaded with binge drinking and slapstick and Vaughn doing his millennial Bill Murray act, and it was still Vaughn’s worst opening yet for a wide release.

So why did it perform so badly? There’s no single factor — it had a generic title, an unimpressive trailer, and a supporting cast of respectable actors who aren’t exactly marquee names — but the best explanation seems to be that, simply, Vince Vaughn’s overgrown frat-boy persona has run its course. His snappy, perpetual-adolescent turns in pictures like Old School, Dodgeball, and Wedding Crashers are, to be sure, funny; his cocky persona, sideways delivery, and razor-sharp comic timing are killer comic weapons.

But those characters were also decidedly of their time, and that time has passed. Now, his irresponsible bad boy act seems like a relic from another era. Even Vaughn seems tired of this persona; in recent movies, he’s barely there. His timing has slowed, his delivery is halfhearted, and he’s got the bedhead of an actor caught in the midst of literal (and not just figurative) sleepwalking.

The earlier Bill Murray comparison is instructive; even a legend like Murray knew he could only work the same moves so many times, and after lifeless vehicles like Larger Than Life and The Man Who Knew Too Little, he went back to the lab and reemerged as a melancholy character actor. After a decade fronting misfiring comedies that couldn’t capture his speed and wit, Robin Williams reinvented himself as a dramatic actor in the likes of Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society­ — and when the dramas got too syrupy a decade or so later, he reinvented himself again with dark, complex turns in One Hour Photo and Insomnia. When moviegoers got tired of Ben Affleck, leading man, he disappeared for a while, did some well-received supporting roles, and turned to directing. And when Matthew McConaughey’s seemingly endless stream of brain-dead rom-coms finally wore out their welcome, he unleashed a stream of finely tuned dramatic performances, including, wouldn’t ya know it, True Detective.

Vaughn’s placement in the second cast of HBO’s acclaimed hit was a savvy career move. Hopefully, it also means he’s refocusing his energy towards drama. Its easy to forget, in light of his “Frat Pack” period and initial breakthrough in Swingers, the four years or so he spent after that first success doing mostly serious work. The films may not have gotten much attention (small pictures like Return to Paradise, The Locusts, The Prime Gig, and A Cool, Dry Place), but he was often very good in them. He could also take a page from the Williams playbook and go dark; one of his best performances to date was as the coldblooded killer in affable cowboy’s clothing in 1998’s wildly underrated Clay Pigeons, and there was much to admire about his honorable work in Gus Van Sant’s misguided Psycho remake.

Either way it goes, he’d be wise to steer clear of comedy for a while, because whatever Vaughn was doing, it’s no longer working.