"Identity Thief," the new road trip comedy starring Jason Bateman and current comedy it-girl Melissa McCarthy, is an ugly movie. It’s not ugly in terms of the visuals, though director Seth Gordon (of the far superior "Horrible Bosses" and "The King of Kong") doesn’t exactly bring much originality or energy to the project.
No, "Identity Thief" is ugly because of the way it treats its characters, its cast and, by the film’s end, its audience. When it’s not ugly, it’s frustrating, and when it’s not frustrating, it’s merely dull. "Identity Thief" is a lot of things; funny is unfortunately not one of them.
Bateman stars as Sandy Patterson, an unappreciated cubicle worker so similar to every Jason Bateman film character that I wonder if he bothers changing clothes between shoots. He does have a horrible boss, briefly played by Jon Favreau, but he’s got bigger problems than bonus-swindling CEOs. It turns out his identity has been stolen by Diana (McCarthy), a desperate, hoarding con artist who has burned out her credit cards, picked up a drunken disorderly and made trouble with a local gangster – all under Sandy’s name.
Since the police (led by Morris Chestnut) are incredibly inept – I’m no law expert, but the police’s hands seem so tied, I’m thinking of taking up the con – and his new job is at risk, Sandy flies down to Florida to snag Diana and bring her back to Denver to admit to her crimes, clearing his name in the process. Of course, the task is much harder than expected, and after some vehicular mayhem and a seemingly endless number of throat punches, the two are forced to drive across the nation together with gangsters (Genesis Rodriguez and rapper T.I.) and a grizzled bounty hunter (Robert Patrick) in hot pursuit.
Despite the numerous zany pit stops – one in a honky-tonk bar where Diana finds a rowdy Texan (Eric Stonestreet, who does better work on "Modern Family") to annoy Sandy, another in a forest where Sandy has an unfortunate run-in with some snakes – there’s not much life to "Identity Thief." When it’s not frustratingly contrived, the plot is tired, predictable and meandering.
The gangster subplot doesn’t help, adding unnecessary drama, ugly violence and very few laughs – save for when Patrick shows up, looking like he was just dragged off his couch.
As with any road trip comedy made post-1987, the goal is to duplicate "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." And much like numerous other failed clones, "Identity Thief" replaces the humanity that made John Hughes’ film a classic with weak cartoonish humor, often repeated to diminishing returns – it has more throat punches than The Rock’s entire filmography – and hectic set pieces filled with desperate, uninspired slapstick. That’s if you’re lucky; large portions of writer Craig Mazin’s script seem to forget jokes altogether.
The humanity is most sorely lacking in the characters, namely McCarthy’s cruelly constructed Diana. It’s an ugly cartoon character, not because of her weight or her fashion sense (though Gordon and Mazin milk these things for as much mean-spirited humor as they can), but because she’s purposefully destructive to others, and the script forces her to puke and behave as unpleasantly as she can.
But, in one of my least favorite emotional ploys, "Identity Thief" tries to humanize its cruel, destructive creation in the hopes of teaching everyone a lesson and showing that maybe the main character just needed to loosen up a bit. It’s been done before in movies, and it almost always comes off as disingenuous, mainly because of comedy writers’ desire to go bigger and ruder with the funny character. Movies like "Dinner for Schmucks," "Due Date" and now "Identity Thief" amp up their absurdity and reckless behavior to the point that their humanity is left in the dust, and any attempts to salvage the characters feel unearned.
The filmmakers want to have it both ways. They urge the crowd to laugh at Diana and cheer when Bateman hits his rude, lewd travelling partner, then try to make the audience feel bad and turn her into a real person.
It just can’t be done, but give the overqualified cast props for trying, especially McCarthy. She’s impressively dedicated to the role, and when "Identity Thief" gives her human moments – a tear-filled dinner speech is the big scene, but sometimes, it’s just a look that reveals the years of hurt and loneliness leading her to crime – they’re almost touching. It’s an occasionally tender performance in a movie that doesn’t deserve it.
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