‘Identity Thief’ a grating, unfunny, and mean-spirited road-trip comedy

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identity thief posterIdentity Thief

Directed by Seth Gordon

Written by Craig Mazin

USA, 2013

Identity Thief is the latest in a disturbingly long line of mainstream American comedies that requires both its audience and its “normal” leading characters to fall under a form of Stockholm Syndrome. These movies shove a straitlaced man or woman with someone who’s pure id, ruining everything in their path until they’re called on their mistakes, which would turn them into pariahs in real life. Then, the id stares into the eyes of this lead and all of us in the theater and turns on the Sad Puppy Eyes, all but sticking out their lower lip in a pout. We should not feel bad for these destructive forces, and yet, the filmmakers demand we do. Because the stakes must always be raised, and the level of badness heightened, Identity Thief can’t pull off the trick, squandering its overqualified leads in a toxic, nasty, and unfunny comedy.

Jason Bateman plays Sandy Patterson, a Denver accountant who’s about as decent and honest as a person out here in the real world: he has a pregnant wife, two young daughters, an apartment that’s nice but not too fancy, and plenty of bills, none of which are alleviated by his accounting job at a company that doesn’t acknowledge his service appropriately. Just as the clouds have lifted—he’s offered a cushy job in a new firm that will pay five times his current salary—he’s shocked to learn that his identity has been stolen by Diana (Melissa McCarthy), a pastel-colored Southern-fried stereotype who apparently makes a living at gleefully stealing anything and everything she can in the most blatantly ridiculous and implausible way possible. To save his job and livelihood, Sandy tracks Diana down to prove to the cops and his boss of his identity theft (also ridiculous), although he soon realizes that two drug dealers and a bounty hunter are in hot pursuit of Diana as well.

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There is a compelling, rending, and devastating story to be told about the profound and harrowing effects identity theft can have on an average family. Identity Thief is none of these things, and by ripping off, among other films, Midnight Run, it fails spectacularly from the get-go. The best comedians can take any taboo subject and make us laugh, and though Bateman and McCarthy have been funny before, they are handed such noxious material that all they can do is shout at each other at full volume and hope for the best. Perhaps what’s most odd is that director Seth Gordon and writer Craig Mazin go out of their way to make Sandy as likable, if henpecked, as possible in the first act. Sandy’s demeaned for his name—see, it’s not that masculine, so it’s like he’s a woman! Please, make sure to breathe or else you’ll die laughing—but otherwise, he’s a good guy. Why would we want to see this person, who has done nothing to deserve it, get his money stolen out from under him? His situation isn’t funny, it’s pitiable. There’s no point in the film where Sandy is wrong to snap at and insult Diana. Her initial lack of repentance is meant to make her as lovably devious as, say, Bugs Bunny, yet it only serves to make her more loathsome.

The cards are stacked against McCarthy so early, it’s a shame to see her work incredibly hard in the second half, when Diana begins to have a change of heart. (This would be a spoiler if you haven’t seen one of the many films Identity Thief cribs from, but come on.) She pulls off legitimate emotion as we learn more of Diana’s backstory, which makes her creation on the page all the more excruciating. The Diana in the first half of the film is a smirking sociopath; the Diana in the latter half is the spiritual sister of John Candy in John Hughes’ beloved holiday classic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. She tries as hard as she can, but McCarthy can’t wipe away the immensely flawed and mean-spirited script. Bateman, who looks as stranded in the role as Sandy does in the film, is once again a good-hearted straight man, so nice that his character being treated so meanly never makes a lick of sense. Suffice to say, one hopes that the show which vaulted him to his recent stardom, Arrested Development, returns this year with a bang. He may be better off playing Michael Bluth for the immediate future.

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Pairing Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy in a road-trip comedy just like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a good idea. Putting these actors in a movie built on a foundation of a vicious and very real crime that strikes hardworking, innocent people every day—hell, putting any actors in this movie—is a baffling and maddening mistake. Identity Thief is grating and pushy, much like Diana, unable to fathom why everyone in its vicinity wouldn’t be charmed by its very existence. A movie so blatantly demanding to be liked is one that frequently—and certainly in this case—deserves to be ignored in the hopes that it’ll vanish from sight soon enough.

— Josh Spiegel

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