Identity Thief tells the story of a woman who taps into other people’s bank accounts and spends lavishly on herself as a coping mechanism for her troubled past. In the hands of director Seth Gordon and writer Craig Mazin, this concept has been turned into a broad slapstick comedy, with ample time devoted to over the top physical gags like throat punching and getting rammed by cars. This was the wrong approach. It should have been a drama. I know this because the only two scenes I took seriously featured star Melissa McCarthy crying, not in an exaggerated or funny way, but in a way so painfully sincere that the audience is made to feel her character’s hurt and loneliness. In those moments, I actually cared, not just about her, but about the movie as well. How I wish the filmmakers hadn’t regarded these two scenes as detours, that they had decided to take the story in that direction from the very start.
McCarthy’s character is a Florida con artist that uses a whole host of aliases, but for the most part, she goes by the name Diane. During the opening credits, we see her on the phone posing as an operator for a credit card company, deceiving a Denver family man into giving her his most personal information, including his name, his date of birth, and his credit card number. This would be Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Jason Bateman), and yes, there will be several jokes made in reference to his unisex first name. When he quits his accounting job because of his unscrupulous boss (Jon Favreau), he’s immediately made the vice president of a new company founded by his entrepreneurial colleague (John Cho). Things look promising … until he discovers that all his credit cards have been maxed out, that his credit score is dismally low, and that he’s wanted in Florida for skipping a mandatory court date. It doesn’t take long to figure out that his identity has been stolen.
This is the point at which the film sacrifices almost all semblances of plausibility in the name of eliciting a few cheap laughs from the audience. The local authorities, led by Morris Chestnut, are bound by a series of legal technicalities, as they always seem to be in movies like this. This forces Sandy to come up with a harebrained scheme of his own, namely to fly to Florida, bring Diane back to Denver, and convince her to confess. The Cho character, fearing for the reputation of his fledgling company, gives Sandy one week to clear his name. The authorities comply. Astoundingly, so does Sandy’s pregnant wife, Trish (Amanda Peet). As a supposedly level-headed woman, would it not cross her mind that going after an identity thief without the assistance of authorities in an unfamiliar state could potentially be dangerous? Never mind that fact that she already has two young daughters, who in all likelihood would prefer to have their father in their lives.
Sandy’s arrival in Florida kickstarts a series of juvenile physical and verbal gags, all of which, I suspect, were injected into the screenplay as compensation for its total lack of believability. Sandy and Diane will punch each other, throw objects at each other’s heads, wrestle on the floor, and slap each other silly. There will also be several incidents with cars, a couple of which are destroyed with the same heedlessness of a demolition derby. Adding fuel to the fire are the addition of two assassins (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I.), both of whom Diane has also swindled, and a grizzled bounty hunter (Robert Patrick), who makes it a personal mission to capture and kill both Diane and Sandy when his beloved van gets totaled. At that point, Diane and Sandy team up, in effect turning the film into a buddy comedy and a road movie. Why is it a road movie? Because, in a twist of fate that could only be possible in a movie like this, a flight back to Denver is impossible.
The vision for this story was all wrong. Rather than putting it in the hands of Gordon and Mazin, who had a frenetic and hopelessly implausible road comedy that goes for all the obvious jokes in mind, it should have been placed in the care of filmmakers capable of a simple and observant character study. When Diane breaks down and reveals her reasons for being an identity thief, only then could I see the potential for a story worthy of an audience’s attention. Let us delve into the mind of an emotionally broken woman whose survival depended on lying and stealing. Let us examine a person who has been lying for so long, reality and fantasy have long since blended together. She could still be sought after by her victim, but it would have to be under circumstances far less contrived, far more believable, and far less desperate for laughs.
Even since her breakout role in the hit Bridesmaids, McCarthy has proven herself a capable and engaging comic actress. Now that she has shed tears for the first time in a movie, my sincerest wish is that she someday broadens her horizons and accepts more dramatic roles. If she could convince me of her ability to cry in just two scenes, imagine what she could do if given a full two hours and a screenplay with a complete emotional gamut. Yes, we know she’s adept at lowbrow physical humor – which, in the case of Identity Thief, includes a sexual tryst with a Southernized Eric Stonestreet. Now let’s see what else she has to offer. The last thing I would want to happen is for her to be comedy’s answer to Jason Statham, who has not only been typecast in mindless action thrillers but may in fact lack the necessary talent for any other kind of film.
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