In Identity Thief, Melissa McCarthy gets smacked in the face with a frying pan, conked on the head with a toaster, run over by a car and suffers a hundred other bits of violent slapstick, and you laugh almost every time. Then the moment passes, and the movie reverts to crummy. McCarthy has been acting for years, but her popularity blew up after her supporting performance in Bridesmaids, in which she relieved herself, explosively, in a bathroom sink. She is an immensely likable screen presence who is fearless at making herself look ridiculous, and the combination of her girth and surprising agility recall Animal House-era John Belushi. In contemporary Hollywood, she is one of a kind, and how many actresses can say that?
Unfortunately, no matter how hard McCarthy tries, Identity Thief remains an unsalvageable wreck. She plays Diana, a loud and gregarious woman who looks like a super-sized Raggedy Ann doll, with her shock of long red hair and flair for eyeball-searing ensembles. Diana is a computer-savvy con artist who tricks people into giving her their Social Security numbers and birth dates, then cranks out fake credit cards and goes on costly shopping sprees. She’s a hoarder of bright new appliances: Three dishwashers, four microwaves, even an enormous jet ski she keeps parked on her front lawn.
But she picks the wrong target when she goes after Sandy (Jason Bateman), a husband and father of two kids with another on the way who has just gotten a promotion when the police show up accusing him of credit fraud. Identity Thief was directed by Seth Gordon, who made the amusing Horrible Bosses but also the torturously unfunny Four Christmases. Sadly, that’s the one his new movie most resembles. Sandy, who lives in Denver, heads out on a road trip to Florida, where Diana lives, to track her down and somehow bring her back to Colorado so he can clear his name. To say that she won’t go easily is an understatement.
Bateman is a talented actor who has fallen into the Ben Stiller trap of playing the same character in every movie: The ordinary guy with extraordinarily bad luck who serves as straight man to his wild co-stars. Identity Thief is a road comedy, which means there are lots of car chases and crashes and a scene in which McCarthy sings along to every song Bateman tunes into on the radio. There are also hit men and bounty hunters, because the two lead characters aren’t enough to warrant almost two hours of screen time on their own, so why not throw in some superfluous killers and bad guys?
Most unforgivable of all Identity Thief’s sins, though, is the dreaded third-act veer into sentimentality, with tearful confessions and heartwarming revelations and Diana’s transformation from ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. Why do filmmakers succumb to the urge to giving their comedies a sentimental streak? It’s like the ending of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.Was that really necessary?
Turning McCarthy into an object of misunderstood pity who only needed a beauty makeover and a nice dress to fit in with society undercuts everything that’s funny about her performance. The actress tries her best to sell the poignancy, but her talent only makes it worse, because you start feeling sorry for her character, and Identity Thief apparently forgets it was supposed to be a comedy.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Amanda Peet, Jon Cho, Jon Favreau. T.I., Genesis Rodriguez, Robert Patrick.
Director: Seth Gordon.
Screenwriter: Craig Mazin.
Producers: Pamela Abdy, Jason Bateman, Scott Stuber.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 112 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.