Starring: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Jon Favreau
Directed by: Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses”)
Written by: Craig Mazin (“The Hangover Part II”)
Though Kirsten Wiig might have been the star and creative force behind the smash hit “Bridesmaids,” perhaps nobody benefited more from the films success than actress Melissa McCarthy. Not only did she have the entire country talking about how funny she was, but she rode that level of acclaim and popularity to heights like hosting “Saturday Night Live,” winning an Emmy for her work on “Mike and Molly,” and even being nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “Bridesmaids.” Like many before her, McCarthy’s status now gives her the chance to jump from scene-stealer to leading lady. She starts that venture off in the new comedy “Identity Thief.”
When Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) notices that his identity has been stolen, he must travel to another state to catch the person who is using bank accounts. His trip leads him to Diana (McCarthy), a long-time criminal who uses illegal schemes to excessively spend other people’s money. When Sandy and Diana’s safety is threatened by a crime boss Diana scams, they must travel cross country together before trouble finds them both.
With the television show “Arrested Development,” Bateman proved himself to be one of the best straight-man comedic actors around. His seemingly normal character surrounded by complete chaos served as a perfect springboard for others to play off of him. What made Bateman so great, however, was his ability to find laughs himself through reactions and subtle humor. Unfortunately, Bateman’s post “Arrested” career has him stuck in a similar role to the Michael Bluth character he played on the show. Like his characters in “Horrible Bosses,” “The Switch,” and “Extract,” Bateman once again plays an uptight, seemingly normal man who can’t catch a break. In “Identity Thief,” most of Bateman’s purpose is to stand back and let McCarthy do her thing. Because of this, he does not get to showcase the comedic talent he possesses. It’s unfortunate to see a talented actor fall the victim to typecasting, but Bateman can’t seem to shake this particular persona.
In her first post-“Bridesmaids” leading role, McCarthy whiffs in the humor department, though it isn’t entirely her fault. Flat out, the biggest issue is that director Seth Gordon banks on the most of the humor in the film coming from the audience finding McCarthy unconditionally funny. Time and time again throughout “Identity Thief,” the audience is expected to laugh at the barrage of unfunny scenes and situations simply because it is McCarthy doing it. Simply put, it is putting faith that audiences find her inherently funny. It’s the same thing that happens with Will Ferrell. Someone pitches “Will Ferrell as a figure skater” or “Will Ferrell as a 70’s basketball player.” They skimp on quality, bank on people to find laughs because they find everything that Will Ferrell does funny, and end up with massive duds like “Blades of Glory” or “Semi-Pro.” There are more than a few scenes in “Identity Thief” that dig for cheap, lazy laughs rooted in a woman of McCarthy’s size doing physical acts or acting over the top.
Of course, the main reason why the comedy in “Identity Thief” fails is because of screenwriter Craig Mazin, who penned “The Hangover Part II” and the last two movies of the “Scary Movie” franchise. It’s hard to tell what the goal of the film is, but whatever pieces that are attempted fall short. The film doesn’t evoke the mismatched chemistry and build the complex and humorous relationships that road-trip comedies typically have. This also includes the few scenes of raunchy, gross-out comedy. The films few amusing moments come from clear improvisation from its two leads. There is a tonal shift towards the end of the film that features some attempts at dramatic moments that don’t fit. Even though the scenes don’t work in the context of the film, McCarthy is able to show her emotional range as an actress and proves that if perhaps given better material, she can really shine in a role that calls for humor and dramatic chops.
One of the more interesting storylines to follow with “Identity Thief” will be if McCarthy can prove herself to be a big box-office draw as a lead actress. Perhaps there are enough people who do find her funny in any situation and will devotedly show up at the box office for her latest films. While her time as a burgeoning lead comedy star is off to an inauspicious start, one wonders what she can do if she’s not forced to be the female version of Kevin James.