Melissa McCarthy is a force to be reckoned with. In the space of a few films and one hit television show, she has become a new comedic leading lady, not an easy feat. In her few film performances, she has shown tremendous promise; in “Bridesmaids”, she proved she was willing and able to do anything for a laugh and in the recent Judd Apatow film “We are 40 and Whiny” (or “This is 40”, but I believe in truth in advertising, Mr. Apatow), her two brief scenes are the best in the film. In fact, one of these plays unedited during the end credits and this provides more laughs than the rest of the two hour plus film. In each film, she imbues her characters with an instant funny quality making each performance memorable and entertaining. The fact that she seems to be willing and able to do anything for a laugh is fairly stereotypical of plus-sized comedians, male or female, but McCarthy also brings a lot of humanity to her characters allowing us underneath the bombastic exterior and making her characters much more believable and interesting than most other comedians.
“Identity Thief”, directed by Seth Gordon (“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”, “Horrible Bosses”), and co-starring Jason Bateman, allows McCarthy to bring all of these traits to her portrayal of Sandy Bigelow Patterson, a bottom feeder living in Florida who steals the identity of Bateman’s straight-laced family man Sandy Bigleow Patterson who has just received a promotion at a new financial services firm in Denver. McCarthy is, by far, the best part of “Thief”, providing the laughs that make the film watchable.
From the moment she first appears, with a big bush of red hair on top of her head, wearing pastel and floral prints, she looks like Lucille Ball on steroids. But throughout the film, she is given moments, many of which are accomplished with a simple look, which help to reveal the pain that drives her character’s actions.
Naturally, because Sandy is ruining Sandy’s credit history, it is threatening Sandy’s new job, prompting Bateman’s Sandy to drive to Florida to retrieve the criminal and bring her back to Denver to help him clear up the mess. This type of role, the oppressed Caucasian male doing a slow burn with every new development, is pretty much Bateman’s stock and trade. He has played this role before, many times, and he does it so well he should get it trademarked. But while he is perfectly serviceable as the straight man in this comedic duo, the role of Sandy the First doesn’t give him a lot to do to make his character interesting or funny. He really isn’t either. And that makes “Identity Thief” lopsided.
It doesn’t help that every other actor in the film is pretty dull and uninteresting. John Cho plays Sandy’s new boss and does the role completely straight. Morris Chestnut is the Denver cop who helps Bateman’s character figure out what is going on. Again, completely realistic and nothing interesting here. Amanda Peet plays Bateman’s wife. She is good, but not funny.
Because the cops are unwilling to lift a finger and do some work, Sandy decides to travel to Florida, on his own, and bring Sandy back to Denver. Roadtrip! Robert Patrick plays a bounty hunter and T.I. Harris and Genesis Rodriguez play two hit men. These three roles prove to be more of a distraction than anything else. Yes, they fulfill their purpose and keep the two Sandys moving towards Denver, but they don’t provide a single laugh. Eric Stonestreet (TV’s “Modern Family”) plays an over-the-top small-town realtor who likes to swing. His character has a few moments with McCarthy, but these happen pretty much in the middle of the film. Once Sandy and Sandy move on, his character disappears and no one is around to take his place.
In a road movie, all of the wacky characters the two leads encounter are there to provide little bursts of energy and interest before the leads move on to the next group. In “Identity Thief”, this doesn’t happen so there are long periods when nothing funny happens. Yes, there are laughs but it seems like you have to travel miles to get to the next one. In the recent “Guilt Trip” starring Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, the supporting characters, most of whom are played by well-known character actors, pop up along the journey. Yet, each of them barely registers. So the focus of the film is on Streisand and Rogen. They actually fare better because there is a little more give and take in their relationship. Streisand has some laughs and some drama. Rogen has some laughs and some drama. In “Thief”, everything rests on McCarthy’s shoulders.
The slow burn thing that Bateman does is necessary to the film, because there needs to be a more normal person at the center of the journey. He has played this character before and could probably do the role in his sleep. When the role is played completely straight, as it is here, there are just no laughs and it becomes boring. There are a few moments when he has the opportunity to let loose and do something, anything for a laugh but these are not taken advantage of and become wasted opportunities. Each time, it seems like his slow burn is supposed to carry these moments into a laugh – he frequently reacts to someone by saying “Really?” in a low voice. But because we expect this type of behavior from him, it doesn’t surprise or shock us when he reacts. Even though Bateman does this character well, I am bored with it and wish he would do something different and radical.
Seth Gordon first made his mark with a really good documentary called “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” about two rivals competing for a title in the arcade game industry. Then, Hollywood swooped in and put him at the helm of some very mediocre big budget studio comedies. “Four Christmases”? Yikes! But last year, he made one of the best comedies released by a studio. “Horrible Bosses” is just different; the characters don’t do what we expect them to do, the story is funny and the laughs are dark. It also provided a burst of energy to Jennifer Aniston’s career, casting her as a character so different from any we have seen before. “Bosses” also stars Bateman, again doing the slow burn, but because he decides to get even with his boss (Kevin Spacey), Bateman has more to do and delivers more laughs. He is also one member of a trio of buddies, a modern-day Three Stooges and he plays well with Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day. In “Thief”, Gordon takes a step backward and presents a pretty routine road trip comedy.
“Identity Thief” is uneven, routine and unexceptional except for the laughs generated by Melissa McCarthy. But I don’t think these moments are enough to warrant anything more than a bargain matinee. Maybe.