With the release of Unfinished Business this past weekend, Vince Vaughn has further ensconced himself in the inertia of an outdated persona. Breaking into the mainstream on the back of the Jon Favreau-penned coming-of-age comedy Swingers in 1996, Vaughn has since remained little more than the jock best friend, a likable oaf without the dramatic ability or personality to inhabit any character other than himself. It’s a common problem, especially among actors who break out during their early twenties, making Vaughn’s continuing irrelevance as a performer just another facet of the landscape of Hollywood. He is coasting on the charisma of a younger man’s distillation of the frat-boy persona. Vaughn is an interloper at a party meant to cater to a much younger crowd.
There’s plenty to be said on the side of dismissing Vaughn as a C-List comic performer, from his lackluster turn in 2013’s unbearable workplace comedy The Internship, to even more stagnant performances in tepidly dramatic vehicles like Ron Howard’s The Dilemma. Over the past ten years, Vaughn has stumbled as an actor creatively, while consistently delivering in terms of cultivating a body of work dependent on an easily reproducible performance, that being the Vince Vaughn persona cultivated in Swingers and fine-tuned for a mainstream audience in 2003’s Old School (a distracting amusement made adaptable to the studio comedy template). In essence, Vaughn has been making Old School over and over again since 2003. Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story borrow from an established formula, a Vince Vaughn well known and familiar to an audience accepting of easy and predictable entertainment.
But then there are Vaughn’s turns in Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1998, or Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997, performances suggestive of an actor with ambition towards experimentation and branching out in terms of what kinds of roles he is willing to take on. While neither film is exactly a success (financially or critically), the decision to take roles in these two high-profile dramas is suggestive of the sincerity absent from Vaughn’s acting of late. In Swingers, Vaughn is likable because the character he was playing still inhabited the youthful vitality and innocent volatility of the persona he would return to in lesser films. The Vaughn persona would soon evolve out of this individual performance not yet fully formed, lending Vaughn a vulnerability that has since become impossible to recapture as a much older and more emotionally mature actor has emerged in real life, but not on the screen.
Occasionally, Vaughn has really shone in smaller roles, such as his turn in the Sean Penn-directed adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild in 2007, where Vaughn acts as a pseudo-guide and paternal figure to a more age-appropriately immature Emile Hirsch. Additionally, there are Vaughn’s roles in Mike Mills’ 2005 indie drama Thumbsucker or 2006’s The Break-Up, both roles in which Vaughn is allowed to embrace a maturity reflective of his off-screen personality. In these roles, nuance and subtlety are engaged at least as far as Vaughn is able to manage. While Jon Favreau’s directorial debut Made, released in 2001, stands as a source of professional encouragement towards embracing the Vince Vaughn persona, Vaughn’s larger body of work is representative of a much smarter actor than the lovable oaf currently masquerading as yet another small business owner in the thematically inane Unfinished Business.
Whether or not this year’s second season of the audience-pleasing hit and critically-approved HBO series True Detective can serve as a palate cleanser capable of reinvigorating a dying career is still unclear, especially with this past weekend’s supplement of the Vince Vaughn persona still lingering on the tongue. Unfortunately, there’s also Term Life to look out for later this year, reuniting Vaughn with director of 2009’s Couples Retreat (and close friend) Peter Billingsley, who will more likely than not be more content to let the Vince Vaughn persona run the show, resulting in a feature film likely to be as dramatically manipulative and thematically redundant as per their previous cinematic engagement. While Vaughn is certainly still an actor who wants to work, its increasingly unclear if he will ever be anything other than himself, growing ever more ephemeral with the passage of time and the growing maturity of an actor in a rapid state of decline.
At a certain point, it will become impossible for Vaughn to keep the Vince Vaughn persona up. The impotence of pretending to still be a late-twenty-something-to-early thirty-something ne’er-do-well quickly becomes as tired, old, and beleaguered as Vaughn physically appears. Swingers was a fantastic debut from a young actor, but its featured performance was rooted in an innocence no longer beholden to a much older and more experienced actor. The replication of it into perpetuity serves to lessen the original’s lasting resonance and staying power. Vaughn’s very name has now become nearly synonymous with derision and ridicule, his professional resume a seeming list of all of the failures of a tone-deaf teenager playing at making the next Old School, an occupation not befitting to a forty-four year old man, much less one who starred in the original.
The Vince Vaughn persona, then, appears to be all that remains of Vaughn the actor, the replication of a performance from nearly twenty years ago manufactured on demand, putting money in Vaughn’s pocket while simultaneously distancing him from the work that he at times appears to be still pursuing. If Vaughn wants to stay relevant to a larger moviegoing audience, he may by all means be doing just fine taking lead roles in studio comedies like Unfinished Business. The sorts of people who will want that sort of sophomoric escapism are in steady supply, new frat boys and adolescent miscreants continually being produced by the passage of time and a mainstream culture perfectly content with exchanging dollars for a safe laugh. But if Vaughn wants to shed the Swingers persona and start being taken seriously as an actor reflective of his years and at times ambitious resume, he’s going to have to start saying no to big studio comedies, leaving the safety of undergraduate revelry for graduate level studiousness.
Vaughn’s past work with Jon Favreau is indicative of an actor eager to create and challenge himself as well as the viewer, but before he does so he will need to outgrow the persona he has wrapped around himself like a cocoon. No doubt there is a butterfly within the caterpillar that is Swingers, but he certainly hasn’t revealed himself in Unfinished Business. Perhaps the second season of True Detective will signal the end of Vaughn’s pupal stage as a merely capable performer and his emergence as a full-fledged actor. Until then, Swingers will have to serve as a reminder of Vaughn’s acting potential, and Wedding Crashers is still a mildly amusing romp if you can get past the artifice of the Vince Vaughn persona.
Wedding Crashers, New Line Cinema Old School, Dreamworks Pictures Unfinished Business, 20th Century Fox