Identity Thief Steals the Identities of Many Other Movies 

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Identity Thief
Directed by Seth Gordon

Melissa McCarthy didn't have a very big part in Bridesmaids, but her bravado, blunt-spoken sweetness, and showstopping improvisations were so prominent that she gave the impression of a longtime comedy star rather than a character actress who spent a lot of time waiting in the wings. She's such a natural fit for a buddy comedy that it was almost a surprise that she hadn't made one yet. Now she's booked two in quick succession: The Heat, due out later this year, pairs her with an uptight Sandra Bullock, while Identity Thief places her alongside an uptight Jason Bateman.

Bateman plays Sandy Patterson, an internal accountant at a big, uncaring financial firm (his smarmy, bonus-collecting, Fountainhead-recommending boss is played by Jon Favreau, himself collecting a bonus in the form of third-billing for a single five-minute scene) whose move to a smaller, hipper, presumably much more caring financial firm is complicated twice: by the screenplay, engaging in overelaborate scene-setting before getting us to the second complication, which involves Diana (McCarthy) stealing Sandy's identity and screwing up his credit, background check, and possibly his job. Desperate to clear his name faster than the police can, Sandy sets out to the "worst place in America"—Winter Park, Florida—to track down the thief and bring her to justice.

Once Sandy and Diana meet up, Identity Thief becomes like all kinds of 80s-ish comedies: the kind where drug dealers are inexplicably on the heroes' trail (somehow the movie avoids diamond smuggling); the kind with wacky and expensive car-chase slapstick; and, most prominently, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles in general, with the gregarious, talkative weirdo irritating the uptight business man, then breaking his heart a little. But director Seth Gordon and screenwriter Craig Mazin telegraph that Hughes-approved squishiness early on, framing Diana's crimes as pleas for attention and love that her own credit rating can't buy.

Gordon isn't the most nimble big-studio comedy director, but three films into that career, he has shown signs of thematic unity. All of his movies play on recognizable middle-class anxieties: the adult children of divorce stumbling through Four Christmases, the mid-level workplace obstacles of Horrible Bosses, and now the tense economics of Identity Thief. Bateman's Sandy lives in a small apartment with his good-humored wife (Amanda Peet; remember when she participated in comedy without just phoning it in?), and comes to if not endorse, then at least to understand Diana's thievery because of her unenviable circumstances and his own disgust with economic unfairness and fragility he's witnessed first-hand.

But if the movie is less mean-spirited than it might have been, it also isn't especially hilarious: amusing at times, but lacking the five or six big laughs to up its percentages. The problem arises less from the sentimentality (though there is that) than the filmmakers' inability to figure out McCarthy's character: she's by turns needy, motormouthed, conniving, profane and tender. Call it the Zach Galifianakis problem, where comedians with a voice are expected to bundle together whatever quirks pop into their heads. McCarthy surely has the talent to contain these sometimes self-contradictory multitudes, but the movie has her grasping for laughs under the too-broad umbrella of inappropriate behavior, unsure if it wants to reveal the sensitive gal underneath all of the bluster and throat-punching or paint Diana as a lovable sociopath.

Same difference, I suppose, in a comedy like this, which gives supporting chasers like Genesis Rodriguez and Robert Patrick a few laughs but doesn't hold them together with unified farce (it's a hitch often found in Farrelly Brothers movies: crime-related subplots with puzzlingly serious-minded and payoff-free convolutions). Despite Gordon's gestures toward relevance, Identity Thief is foremost a vehicle for McCarthy and, to a lesser extent, Bateman—one that mainly wants to put them in front of the camera, figuring the premise will do the rest.

Opens February 8

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