Movie review: Identity Thief

By Mark Lieberman

The Eagle, American U. via UWIRE

Say this for “Identity Thief”: it meets expectations. In other words, it’s as bad as its trailers and February release date would suggest.

Written by Craig Mazin (“The Hangover Part II”) and directed by Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses”), “Identity Thief” boasts several talented performers. Jason Bateman (“Horrible Bosses”) and Melissa McCarthy (“This is 40”) have extraordinary comedic gifts, and the supporting cast is populated with excellent actors like Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”), Amanda Peet (“Bent”), Robert Patrick (“Gangster Squad”) and Eric Stonestreet (“Modern Family”).

Unfortunately, none of this talent elevates the shoddy material.

The movie’s first scene climaxes with a vomit scene more gross than amusing, a harbinger of things to come. Shortly thereafter, Bateman arrives on screen as a businessman named Sandy Patterson. Hilarious, right? Well, no, but seemingly every new character gets in an unimaginative jab about the endless comedic potential of a traditionally female name transposed on a male body. The script lacks the good sense to recognize that the word “Sandy” is not inherently funny.

Melissa McCarthy’s eponymous character takes advantage of Patterson’s allegedly hysterical gender-neutral moniker and, as the title indicates, steals his identity. For the rest of the movie, Bateman’s Sandy convinces McCarthy’s Sandy to travel from Florida to his home in Colorado so that the identity thief can admit her crimes to the victim’s boss (John Cho, “Star Trek”) and the police. Complications include a drug boss (Banks) and his cronies (Genesis Rodriguez, “Man on a Ledge,” and rapper T.I., “Takers”), an unhinged lunatic (Patrick), a promiscuous cowboy (Stonestreet) and all manner of transportation-related issues.

“Identity Thief” fails the first test of movie comedy — it doesn’t inspire laughter. McCarthy is making every effort, running and singing and pratfalling, but her character is excessively unlikable and cartoonish rather than endearingly outrageous. Bateman serves as the straight man to McCarthy’s antics, but even he seems irritated by the tired dialogue.

The problem is not simply that the movie is too ridiculous or that the premise is too absurd. In fact, in some instances, the opposite is true. The first act treats this identity crisis almost as if it were reality. The writers have misjudged the absurdity of this premise. Why not exaggerate those elements instead of making us pretend to care about the ramifications of a police investigation?

Even more problematically, the script seems to frequently call attention to McCarthy’s weight. McCarthy is a beautiful woman who happens not to fit the stereotypical weight of a Hollywood actress. So what? How about a movie in which the character’s weight is simply a fact and not a talking point? Such progressivism would be refreshing. Instead, this movie makes cheap jokes at her expense.

After more than an hour of tiresome antics, the script takes an unwelcome turn into entirely unearned sentimentality. Suddenly, the writers require that the audience invest in the emotional lives of formerly loathsome characters. Yes, she’s a con artist, but she has a sob story! Yes, he’s an impressionable doofus, but he has been pushed around all his life! To McCarthy’s credit, she nearly pulls off this abrupt transition by virtue of her charm. Bateman is not so lucky.

Some of these problems might have been alleviated if the comedic set pieces were fresh or amusing in any way. Sadly, they’re not.

At one point, the conversation between the two Sandys takes an inexplicable turn. “I visually enjoy you,” McCarthy tells Bateman lustily.

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to visually enjoy this lazy, sloppy, inane movie.

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