Melissa McCarthy was one of many fantastic elements that helped ‘Bridesmaids’ achieve comedic gold, but it’s no slight against the film to admit she sticks hardest to memory. To call her a female John Belushi or Chris Farley is a disservice. McCarthy crafted a screen presence free from imitation, her Megan standing firm amongst the other female characters wrought by self-doubt. With gusto and spirited conviction in the outrageous, she drew us in, past the superficial label of “goofball,” into the reality that Megan was the healthiest, most self-aware human being in the film.
Naturally, Hollywood missed this vital lesson and resolved to distill McCarthy through the Comedy Star Formula Machine. Thus we have “Identity Thief.”
The film, director Seth Gordon’s follow up to “Horrible Bosses,” begins with the titular robbery: Sandy Bigelow Patterson, Jason Bateman at his most guileless, responds to a phone call asking for his credit information. It becomes the property of Melissa McCarthy, now renamed Sandy Bigelow Patterson, though later we come to know her as “Diana.” Even this name might be a fabrication.
Bateman’s Sandy serves his family. He toils in white-collar hell, ripped from the reels of “Office Space,” to support a wife and two daughters soon to become three. McCarthy’s Sandy serves only herself via capitalism. She racks up $1,000 on a bar tap, a great deal more on a mall spree, and when her Sandy credit hits bottom, she has another pile of dupes to draw from. Her very image — drowned in cosmetics, tacky shirts and a Medusa coiffure — is borne from the pages of backlog AVON brochures and within Sears’ bargain racks. We’re introduced to the artificial Diana. The real one. You see the pattern?
The real Sandy discovers the scam when it threatens to undo his life. Dissatisfied with police efforts, he travels to Miami to personally apprehend Sandy and present her to the Denver police, but a pair of dealers duped by Diana fall on their trail, complicating the search-and-quasi-rescue. Male/female, yin/yang are forced to cooperate. They quarrel, hurl insults, hurt feelings and reconcile when it becomes clear “Identity Thief” has no pretensions to originality and will play every road trip trope by the book.
You know the outcome from previous films as well as the trailer, which true to comedy standards tells all the best jokes. In fact, it tells them better. Editor Peter Teschner cuts the final film like a one-eyed butcher, missing the comedy beats by a few inches, letting gags play seconds too long. The gas station attendant mocking Sandy’s name in the trailer? Mildly funny there. In the film, it drags on and on and grows stiflingly uncomfortable. The same goes for the seemingly uproarious car-radio sequence. You’ve seen its quintessential form before seeing the movie.
The supporting cast is awash with misdirection. I was giddy to see Kevin Cho, who might have advised Gordon on how to make an endearing road-trip film, but he’s rapidly disregarded and relegated to the role of cubicle wallflower. The drug dealer subplot is dumb, passé and in the wrong film. The skiptracer subplot, with veteran actor Robert Patrick as a crazed bounty hunter, is even more unwelcome. Only Jon Favreau, Iron Man director and sometimes actor, offers the one surprise laugh as Sandy’s Ayn Rand-inspired CEO, although even his schtick’s a carryover from “Horrible Bosses.”
It falls on Bateman and McCarthy then to sustain our interest, and heaven knows they try. Even Bateman wins back some goodwill after such colossal missteps as “The Change-Up” and “Paul,” while McCarthy wants us to like Diana as much as we enjoyed Megan. If “Identify Thief” succeeds in any capacity, it’s solely from the connection forged between the audience and these two actors.
What sinks the enterprise, dragging down our stars with it, is the script by “The Hangover” scribe Craig Mazin. It’s not for lack of effort. Mazin tries his darndest to keep the film afloat. Behind the vomit gags and cursory car chases, he crafts perfect character arcs for Bateman and McCarthy to follow as their friendship strengthens: Bateman is naïve, McCarthy is lonely. They have lessons to learn. It’s basic Screenwriting 101, and Mazin’s no amateur.
But does Diana need a character arc? Unlike Megan, she turns out to be a sad and pathetic human being. The film serves to prove her existence meaningless and replace with the hokey, boyish notion that what really sets a woman’s heart aflutter is motherhood. It demeans McCarthy, whose brazenness distinguished her from the pack; defangs her comedy; and reduces it to a harmless, gummy bite. She deserves much better. Women in film deserve better.
It should go without saying the other women in “Identity Thief” receive worse treatment by not being treated at all, and for that I can’t even recommend viewing “Identity Thief” to tolerate it. This is a backwards, nefarious film precisely because it intends no harm while doing the most damage. No film should aspire to copy “Identity Thief”; it should be abandoned to history to quickly forget. I wish Melissa McCarthy a more dignified film future, worthy of her roots.