Silver Screen: Identity Thief ***
On the whole, the pleasantly benign Identity Thief doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. It’s a mismatched-buddy road comedy about a calamitous journey that takes several unexpected turns, yet the film itself travels all the main roads on the way to a place where we already know we’re going. It does, however, offer up a fantastically entertaining comedy team in stars Jason Bateman and SIU alumna Melissa McCarthy, who make the movie memorable by dint of their charisma.
Bateman is well within his wheelhouse as Sandy Patterson, a beleaguered business executive whose stuffiness is tinged with acid sarcasm; surely somewhere in the script the character must be described as a Jason Bateman-type. Fresh off leaving a lousy job working for an uncaring boss (Jon Favreau), he’s cofounded a new business that he hopes will finally provide security for his pregnant wife (Amanda Peet) and two young daughters.
At the worst possible time, Sandy learns that his identity has been stolen, which has put a freeze on his credit cards and landed him in trouble with the law-- all of which threatens his new business venture. Since he can’t afford to wait for the prolonged extradition process to bring the thief to justice and clear his record, he decides he must fly from Colorado to Florida and track down the criminal himself.
Enter Diana (McCarthy), a pathological liar and career cheat who has run up massive bills under the gender-neutral name Sandy Patterson. She’s brash, American consumer-selfishness embodied, thoughtlessly ruining the lives of people she never meets in her endless quest to acquire junk and lounge in luxury. She’s also pissed off the wrong people by botching the sale of stolen credit cards to a lazily rendered, only-in-Hollywood crime syndicate led by an imprisoned white guy named Paolo (Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks) and represented by a pair of singularly attractive henchmen (Genesis Rodriguez and rapper T.I.). When Sandy proposes she accompany him to Colorado to help him clear his name, she goes along just to escape the gunmen on her trail.
The trouble with Identity Thief is that just as Sandy and Diana’s journey is interrupted by oddball outsiders, including the aforementioned sexy hitman team, a bounty hunter (Robert Patrick), and a bloodthirsty snake, so too do these interlopers keep getting in McCarthy and Bateman’s way. Every time the characters start to have interesting moments together, the solid character-driven comedy is interrupted by hijinks that are too wacky by half. It’s as though director Seth Gordon doesn’t have enough faith in the conflicts between his characters and has to keep upping the ante with car chases and shootouts.
That’s a shame, because there’s a pretty good movie stuck between scenes of hyperbolic calamity. McCarthy is hysterically funny as the profanity-spewing, throat-punching Diana. She captures the character’s savage, untamed id yet manages to coax significant sympathy when her troubled past is revealed. Bateman is an ideal foil, and the two play off one another nicely as they spar with surprising intensity, which shows off McCarthy’s significant talent for physical humor. In the movie’s quieter moments, they have a rapport reminiscent of Steve Martin and John Candy’s uneasy relationship in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and were it not for the overblown narrative contrivances, the movie could have been that strong.
It’s not the first time director Gordon has overplayed a nifty high concept. His last film, Horrible Bosses, approached a delightfully dark premise too broadly and lost all its edge in the process. If only Gordon could capture the same sense of nuance and scale he brought to his fantastic documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. He’s still made a pretty decent movie here, but you get the impression that McCarthy and Bateman could make anything hilarious if people would just get out of their way.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.