plain trains and automobiles

Movie Review: Identity Thief Should Have Stolen More Laughs

Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy in Identity Theft Photo: Guy D’Alema/Universal Pictures

Identity Thief is funny enough, but it needed to be darker, raunchier, and crazier to live up to the promise of its casting. Melissa McCarthy’s awesomely nasty life-force transformed Bridesmaids, and while Jason Bateman has been coasting on straight-man roles for a while now, he can elevate his game to the surrealism of his milieu when presented with the right material (Arrested Development, Extract). Both actors have wild streaks a mile wide, but alas, Seth Gordon’s comedy is content to deliver just a few yuks on its way to a surprisingly earnest and bland payoff.

The idea is pretty basic, and the movie launches into it with its very first scene: Sandy Patterson (Bateman), a well-meaning, overly trusting family man living in Denver, falls for a comically simple identity scam perpetrated by a woman from Florida (McCarthy, whose character is eventually known as Diana, though we’re never quite sure if that’s her real name). Soon enough, she’s racking up massive bar tabs, hairdresser appointments, and God knows what else in his (unisex) name — and, of course, not paying. The movie’s early scenes have an engagingly paranoid quality, as Sandy’s life collapses around him thanks to insane purchases and police run-ins in some distant Florida town he’s never even heard of. When the police prove comically useless, he decides he has to take matters into his own hands and goes in search of his tormentor, North by Northwest–style. Sandy finds Diana as soon as he’s in Florida, and not long after that they’re in a car, headed to Denver, so Sandy can show Diana to his boss and the cops and get his life back.

Meanwhile, some very cross drug dealers are also following them, as is a grizzled bounty hunter, but the baddies don’t make much of an impression. It’s all basically just an excuse to put these two characters into your typical odd-couple-on-the-road situation, not unlike Planes, Trains, and Automobiles or the more recent Due Date: A straight-laced square and an overweight hedonist go on a quest and learn life lessons from one another. In this case, she teaches him to stick up for himself, and he teaches her how to be a better person, particularly through his exchanges with his family back home.

The movie certainly has its raunchy moments (a motel room encounter between Diana and a good old boy she’s picked up — played by Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet — gets surprisingly sexually gruesome) and there are a couple of decent running gags (Diana likes to pretend that Sandy is her husband, and that he’s suffering from horrific genital deficiencies). But they don’t quite feel as if they belong; they’re like pit stops along a more conventional, earnest route. The actors do what they can. Bateman is likable as usual, but he really has taken this nice-guy shtick about as far as it’s likely to go. As for McCarthy, she pulls off a deceptively tough balancing act, playing a reasonably charming and outgoing person who also happens to be a total sociopath. (In other words, she’s both John Candy and Chris Farley. To compare her to her overweight male forebears is deeply wrong, but hard to resist.) That the film doesn’t allow her to do more with this odd, potentially hilarious mix is among its chief crimes. You’ll laugh, but you might also cry at how much more you could have laughed.

Movie Review: Identity Thief