'Identity Thief' has an identity crisis
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
There is an ominous trend creeping into the American cinema today. I was going to call it "the movie that can't make up its mind," but the fact is it's much worse: It's the movie that has no mind to make up, and doesn't even pretend to care. "Identity Thief," a long, tedious picture that wastes the considerable comic talents of Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, is a remarkably irritating example of such a picture. Watching the trailers, you may glean its premise: Bateman plays a regular Joe who's been scammed by McCarthy's happy-go-lucky credit card forger, and he seeks her out himself to get restitution. But there's so much more! And very little of it good. While spewing out enough exposition to choke three straight action movies, "Identity Thief" tries to be "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" meets "The Gauntlet" or maybe "Midnight Run," and then of course there are touches from more immediate precursors, including McCarthy's breakout picture, "Bridesmaids," and the Bateman-starring equally-not-caring-how-stupid-or-incoherent-it-is 2011 hit "Horrible Bosses," with which this shares a director.
It's not just that McCarthy's character has scammed Bateman's amiable down-on-his-job-luck yuppie dad; she's conned some drug-dealer types (one of them played by a shotgun-toting T.I., the rap artist who recently served a federal prison rap for a gun violation. Get used to an entertainment world in which Ray Lewis is the norm, party people) and has a bounty hunter on her trail. All this flummoxes Bateman's character, but he learns something, too, and the inevitable moment when he decides he no longer wants to be a "chump" and decides to give his horrible boss in this picture a taste of some scam medicine, the resultant scene is ... well, like pretty much everything else in here: vulgar and showy and more than vaguely icky.
The movie has no real attitude toward the class differences embodied by the
Bateman and McCarthy characters, even though it's posturing as if it's got a
sharp satirical eye. The conception and execution of McCarthy's scam artist is
particularly, consistently offensive. First you're supposed to laugh at her,
hatefully, because she's fat and drunk and a sociopath criminal and con artist.
Then you're supposed to laugh with her, 'cause ha ha ha, she punched the
weak-ass Jason Bateman character in the throat! Then you're supposed to laugh at
her, but in a more get-your-freak-on way, because she's fat and likes weird sex
with other fatties! Then you're supposed to feel concern for her, because she's
threatened by that bounty hunter! Then you're supposed to feel bad for her,
'cause she's lonely and unloved. Then you're supposed to like her, 'cause she's
great with kids, which means she's a good person. None of this has to do with
the creation of a credible character; it's all just a random series of traits
and circumstances that turn up at the varying whims of the director, the editor,
possibly the screenwriter and, yes, McCarthy herself. Letting your actors loose
to spontaneously concoct the comic goods is all well and good, but when the
improv action painting starts eroding anything resembling narrative interest,
that's a bad thing. It's an increasingly bad thing as the movie lurches closer
and closer to the two-hour mark. "Identity Thief" starts out wearing its
identity crisis on its sleeve. And then it gets worse. Even hard-core Bateman
and McCarthy fans are likely to be befuddled or worse.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.