Melissa McCarthy is like a female Chris Farley, only funny. She’s a winning, fearless, plus-sized talent ready to run with anything she’s given; this is the woman that was willing to “poop” in a sink in “Bridesmaids.” Paired up with go-to straight man Jason Bateman, the comic firecracker gets her first major vehicle with “Identity Thief,” a sour, tiresome road-comedy that inspires a revisiting of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” It’s not their fault this probably sounded like a gas on paper but actually comes off as a bummer unworthy of their talent. If only a lazy comedy could scrape along purely by its performers’ good will, but they deserve better and so do we.
Bateman puts on his best exasperated face playing Sandy Bigelow Pattersonâ€”yeah, yeah, it’s a unisex name! He’s a mild-mannered Denver family man with a loving wife (Amanda Peet), two adorable daughters, and a baby on the way and he works as an underpaid accounts processor for a jerk of a boss (Jon Favreau). Once a group from his office leaves and hires him for a bigger salary, life couldn’t be better. Then his credit card gets declined and his job is on the line. It turns out his identity has been stolen from falling for a scam over the phone and giving away his personal information to a tackily dressed, larger-than-life woman whose real name might be “Diana” (McCarthy). All this time, she’s been maxing out all his copied cards and living the high life in Florida when she’s not getting arrested. (When we first meet her, she buys drinks for an entire bar, gets smashed, and then enjoys a mug shot for the P.D.) Of course, in order for the premise to segue into a wacky road trip, Sandy has no other option but to schlep to The Sunshine State and bring back the imposter himself. If that weren’t enough, two armed thugs (Genesis Rodriguez and rapper T.I.), as well as a skip tracer (Robert Patrick), are in Diana, and by default, Sandy’s pursuit, but it’s mostly filler.
Sloppily written by Craig Mazin (“The Hangover Part II”) and directed without much momentum by Seth Gordon (the disappointing “Four Christmases” and the enjoyably nasty “Horrible Bosses”), “Identity Thief” is never the gut-buster it should be. On the simple basis of laughs, the ratio of miss to hit is extremely wide, unless any humor is derived from Diana repeatedly punching people in the throat or Diana herself getting bashed over the head with a guitar and later being hit by a speeding car. All of this violent, unfunny slapstick becomes repetitive and off-putting after a while. But even a kinky tryst between Diana and a cowboy named Big Chuck (a wasted Eric Stonestreet), whom she picks up at a bar, seems uninspired, despite the exuberant energy the two bring to it. Apart from its lead stars squeezing out a few choice one-liners, McCarthy’s monologue about the “Bermuda Triangle,” and the mere sight of Diana’s house stocked like a wholesale store (with a jet ski in the front yard and a rock-climbing wall in the back), the comedy quotient never rises to more than a few passing chuckles. The next worst thing is to see this exhausted premise get dragged out past the 90-minute mark.
Again, McCarthy is incredibly game in clowning it up, looking like a crazed beautician, and going over-the-top for a laugh. She is also able to sell authentic emotion, even here, but the scrappy, insubordinate “Diana” is little more than a sketchily defined punchline. Once it’s veered into a mismatched-buddy comedy, the film softens and then cheaply takes a gooey, weepy 180-degree turn to try and earn our sympathy for the irritating, life-ruining con artist. Oh, now we’re supposed to excuse her behavior and root for her? In arguably the best sceneâ€”a dinner between Sandy and a made-over Diana who have called a truce for nowâ€”McCarthy subtly pours her heart into telling a painfully sad, dark sob story. We’re almost won over because it’s all her doing and never relies on pushy musical cues. Alas, it seems to come from a different, smarter, less forced movie and that one moment of remorse and redemption can’t really redeem how unpleasant this character has been up until now. Bateman is always an able foil, injecting his sardonic, smart-aleck personality into some of the situations here, but he mostly has to ride shotgun to McCarthy.
McCarthy and Bateman ordinarily make comedy look easy, but despite their valiant efforts in punching up pretty dismal material, this misfire misuses them. Just letting these two do their stuff with the cameras rolling would have been more fun to watch. Or, had Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo gotten their hands on the script, maybe then we’d be cooking with gas.
111 min., rated R.
Grade: C –