Tuesday, February 19, 2013

IDENTITY THIEF Struggles for Laughs


- I like Jason Bateman. I like Melissa McCarthy. And I remain a fan of director Seth Gordon, who gets a near-lifetime pass from me after making one of my favorite films of the last decade, The King of Kong. But IDENTITY THIEF is not worthy of the talents of any of those three. It's a comedy that aims only for the most obvious targets, with a story that barely holds together, and jokes that almost universally fall flat. It's a movie that, at times, is so dire that it actually made me feel sorry for those involved - McCarthy in particular. McCarthy is a talented and funny woman. She does not need to be doing this sort of bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. She doesn't need to do a movie where nearly every joke is about how she's fat/ugly/gross. In the last couple of weeks, there's been a lot of controversy about criticisms of the actress and her work. I wholeheartedly agree that derogatory comments directed at the actress are unwarranted and uncalled for. But what's sad is that this is a film that almost invites those kind of comments. That said, sometimes a movie can transcend a basic or uninspired premise if the jokes hit. In Identity Thief, they do not. They land with a thud.

The film has one of those only-in-Hollywood premises in which Bateman, as struggling financial analyst Sandy Bigelow Patterson, has his identity stolen from him by McCarthy's trailer-trash crook Diana. Bateman is on shaky ground at his job and in some financial trouble already, so he is desperate to reclaim his ID from McCarthy. And so a plan is arranged in which he'll track her down himself, and somehow force her to come back with him and confess her crimes to the police, thus exonerating him of all of the various things done in his name and with his bank account.

The film is structured very much like any given 80's-era roadtrip film, with the unlikely duo of Sandy and Diana chasing each other, being chased (they run afoul of a couple of shady characters who Diana has gotten mixed up with), and getting into trouble as they journey cross-country.

To that end, the film gets a boost from a few fun actors like Robert Patrick and Jonathan Banks (of Breaking Bad) showing up as criminal heavies. But they also feel underutilized (Banks, especially), and they - like almost everything else in the movie - feel like distractions to give Bateman and McCarthy something to keep them occupied. Plenty of great comedies have gotten laughs by placing their clueless main characters into these sorts of everyone-is-after-'em situations, but Identity Thief never really has fun with that concept. Again, all of the shenanigans just feel like filler. Another great example is Eric Stonestreet's appearance as a southern-fried horndog who takes a liking to McCarthy. There is literally no point to the character except to say: isn't it funny to watch two fat people get it on? Actually, it's not that funny, especially given that the movie delivers the extended scenes of plus-sized lovin' with barely any boundary-pushing. What I'm getting at is - I don't mind a good gross-out gag as long as it's suitably shocking and unexpected. But everything in Identity Thief is *exactly* what you would expect.

Aside from some sparks of life from Patrick, other cast members like Amanda Peet, John Cho, and Jon Favreau seem to be simply going through the motions. Bateman could play this part in his sleep, and he basically does. Okay, I'll give him credit - he gives it the old college try. But even a guy with his expert comic timing just can't do much with such a dud of a script. It's no surprise then that the movie's few chuckle-worthy moments are the ones that feel at least semi-improvised. McCarthy had some scene-stealing moments just recently in the improv-friendly Judd Apatow's This Is 40, and she gets in a couple of off-script-seeming lines here and there in this one that are, easily, the highlights of the film. But those moments are few and far between. Most of the dialogue is just painfully by-the-numbers.

Now, perhaps this movie could have been a harmless-if-not-hilarious film if it didn't try to accentuate its comedy with some absolutely grating moralizing. What made me actively irritated with the film was its insistence that, after an hour and a half of convincing us that Diana was a gross, horrible, selfish person - all of a sudden we're supposed to buy her as a character that we should care for and root for. We're supposed to buy that Jason Bateman would befriend and care for this woman after she just ruined his life. We're supposed to believe that after a quick makeover and a new dress, Diana is no longer an ugly beast, but a beautiful woman who is also, really, beautiful on the inside. The movie goes for pure sentimentality that is totally unearned. And the movie feels hypocritical for trying to make us laugh at the expense of Diane - to make her the monstrous villain of the film - only to quickly try to turn the tables and make her likable. It all feels pretty cheap, and it really soured me even further on the movie. What gets me is that the movie could have told the story of Diana's personal journey from selfish criminal to good and selfless person. But it never really tells that story. It milks McCarthy for every pratfall and gross-out moment it can, and then suddenly flips a switch and says no, we the audience - like Bateman - had her all wrong. And so I cringed at that moment when McCarthy presents herself to Bateman done-up and in a nice dress, and he smiles at the woman who ruined his life and says "you look beautiful." McCarthy's looks had never been a plot-point until then - so it feels like a half-hearted apology for everything that came before at her expense. Finally, there's some sort of explanation that McCarthy steals identities because she herself never had a real identity. All info-dumped at the end of the movie. All contrived because the movie couldn't stand by having McCarthy simply play a badguy. I'm trying to verbalize why the movie so rubbed me the wrong way, and it might be this: on paper, the movie was about a woman who steals someone's identity to comedic effect, but in practice, it ends up - for no good reason - being a movie about how a fat, weird, ugly, and misunderstood person may also be a good (and maybe even not-so-ugly!) person deep down inside. I hate that that's a movie. It's 2013, we shouldn't need a movie to tell us this. And I'm not pulling the fat thing out of thin air. Like I said, a good portion of the movie's jokes are about McCarthy's size and the way she looks. Except when the movie is about how we shouldn't judge her for the very qualities it mocks. In my book, that's not necessarily a recipe for great comedy.

My Grade: C-

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