Melissa McCarthy presents a familiar problem. The comedienne du jour who made her bones in Bridesmaids and the television series Mike & Molly is a force of funny, a comet that everyone is trying to catch. She is that rare commodity, an actress who is so good at her craft that she can play her role without the crutch of desirability, and her combination of appeals makes her a filmmaker’s dream. She’s sympathetic enough to bring pathos to characters who would descend into cartoonish single dimension in lesser hands, but versatile enough to make even the most basic gags shine a little brighter for her enthusiastic involvement. Both Robin Williams and Jim Carrey have walked this path before, with directors and screenwriters trying to harness their manic energy and make it the fuel for vehicles that would otherwise sputter.
In this case, the old clunker McCarthy tries valiantly to jump start is Identity Thief. She and Jason Bateman are the odd couple in this hackneyed road trip film, and while both of them are very good at what they do, her best efforts and his enjoyably standard shtick can do little to elevate a set of clichés that feel like an old blanket worn thin by overuse. The premise seems modern enough—a lonely woman with a penchant for making credit cards can’t seem to manufacture any friends, but might just find one in the man determined to clear his name by hunting her down. But beyond that, the rest of the film is satisfied with apathetic storytelling. Bateman is an echo of the rest of his résumé here—the happy professional with a home life that leaves him yearning for more. The only dragon left to be slain in his well-padded world is the sense of adventure that he is, naturally, reluctant to embrace.
Said adventure is shoehorned in by way of thinly stretched conceits about the nature of the crime, and the law’s inability to carry out justice. So, our quiet family man easily becomes an interstate vigilante in the name of protecting his cushy new job and the cable subscription, kissing his dutiful wife and loving children goodbye on the way to Hijinks Ensue, Florida. Once there, he tracks down his comfort zone’s saboteur and begins his quest to bring her back to a place where she can right the wrongs that threaten his idyllic existence. But the biggest problem isn’t the token gangsters and bounty hunters dogging their every step back to Denver. It’s the uncertain writing of McCarthy’s character, Diana.
Part of the uncertainty is purposeful. A woman who steals identities but doesn’t really know who she is qualifies for depth in a shallow pond like this one. But Craig Mazin’s screenplay can’t seem to decide if she is the lovable buffoon (a la Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover) or the devious trickster. The vacillation is tiresome, as is most of the journey back. The clownish antics range from banal to beaten to death, with few bright spots. Usual suspects sex, violence and schadenfreude all make appearances, and while the two leads are likable enough, they deserve better, especially McCarthy. Her range is criminally misused here—it’s almost as if someone stole her comedic identity and committed a bad film in her name.
Director: Seth Gordon
Writer: Craig Mazin (screenplay), Jerry Eeten & Craig Mazin (story)
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Bateman
Release Date: Feb. 8, 2013