Film Review: Identity Thief

A volcanic Melissa McCarthy and dust-dry Jason Bateman elevate this weak-scripted but energetic comedy about an office drone who gets his identity stolen by a grifter.

With a couple of characters excised and about ten minutes of film left for the extended and unrated DVD release, Seth Gordon’s Identity Thief could have been a brief spot of fun in a dreary month. As it stands, it’s a comedy that is about two-thirds worthy of your money and one-third a waste of everybody’s time; in other words, better than average for a major studio comedy these days.

Jason Bateman (who also has a producing credit) plays Sandy Patterson, a milquetoast mid-level worker at a Denver financial firm. Underpaid and overworked, he’s in the middle of cutting bonus checks for his titanically horrendous, Ayn Rand-shilling boss (Jon Favreau) when he gets a shot at a better career at a start-up rival. Only, right when his new job is starting, Sandy discovers that his identity has been stolen by a Florida woman who’s been maxing out his credit cards and even got arrested (as him). In one of those only-in-the-movies wrinkles, he decides to drive to Florida and bring the woman back to clear his name. The problem is that when he gets down there, Diana (Melissa McCarthy) has no intention of helping him out. She’d rather punch him in the throat and make a wheezing run for it.

If the filmmakers had been content to leave their film at that, Identity Thief would have been something of a gem. The contrasts between Bateman’s ironic and sarcastic diffidence and McCarthy’s gonzo, go-for-broke style break the film out of almost all the narrative dead-ends the script keeps driving them into. Bateman is as compulsively watchable as ever; there might not be another actor working today who can literally deliver exactly the same performance in film after film and make it feel fresh. McCarthy’s stew of aggressive trash-talk and willingness to take whatever pratfalls are necessary work beautifully for her character, a manic shopper who collects IDs like pelts and lives in a house so stuffed full of goods it looks like a QVC warehouse. It says something about McCarthy that when the crash-bang slapstick of Identity Thief slows down (as all films like this must) to make some heartfelt connections, she actually wrings a few moments of genuine empathy out of scenes that should have been groaners. There’s even a makeover scene that somehow doesn’t feel tacked-on.

The film could have just gone for a Planes, Trains and Automobiles scenario in which Sandy and Diana keep hitting obstacle after obstacle on the way to Denver, bickering, running into weirdoes, and so on. But instead the filmmakers also throw in not one dangerous pursuer (Robert Patrick as a backwoods skip tracer with a serial-killer van) but two more (rapper T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez as a weirdly colorless couple of hit-people). None of them adds to the film’s drama or comedy in any measureable manner.

At no point does director Gordon descend to the depths of his more pallid comedic work like Four Christmases, but he falls well short of the promise shown by the fun, chaotic misanthropy of Horrible Bosses. As a star vehicle, Identity Thief isn’t worthy of two superb leads like Bateman and McCarthy, but then, few films are.