starring: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Bateman, Amanda Peet, Jon Favreau, T.I., Genesis Rodriguez, John Cho, Robert Patrick, Eric Stonestreet
screenplay: Craig Mazin
directed by: Seth Gordon
MPAA: Rated R for sexual content and language
When comic actors give the kind of star-making breakout supporting performance that Melissa McCarthy gave in Bridesmaids, it’s fairly standard for a major studio to toss a starring vehicle their way to see if they can hack it as a comedic lead; frequently, these vehicles tend to reinforce the idea that the actor is better off sticking to supporting roles. But fortunately this is not the case for McCarthy, who genuinely has the chops to pull off a leading role, as she does with fearlessly committed gusto in the otherwise pedestrian road trip action-comedy Identity Thief.
McCarthy stars as Diana, the titular criminal who rips off people’s credit cards to finance her life in, of course, Florida (a nice touch). When we first meet Diana, she seems unhinged and borderline-unlikable; she is ostensibly the villain of the piece, especially as we watch up close the devastation her fraud wreaks on the life of the unluckily-named Sandy (Jason Bateman), a mild-mannered Denver family man expecting a third child with his wife Trish (Amanda Peet). It doesn’t take long for Sandy and the local police to identity Diana and her whereabouts, and via a convoluted setup, Sandy is soon en route to Florida to physically drive Diana back to Denver with him and clear his name.
Going into Identity Thief, I didn’t know it was going to be a road trip movie; when this suddenly became clear and I realized the genre implications thereof (Diana will be humanized to Sandy and they will form an unlikely friendship), I was dubious of its likelihood. The initial impression Diana makes is one of such cartoonish villainy that I doubted any such redemption could plausibly be pulled off. But given that this is McCarthy’s first lead role after becoming white-hot, I also suspected there’d be more to her character than first met the eye; this inevitably turns out to be true, and McCarthy is given a healthy chunk of dramatic material to play alongside all the insane riffs and lunatic pratfalls.
And about those pratfalls: while it continues being wonderful that McCarthy, an over-40 actress of size, can suddenly enjoy such richly-deserved superstardom, she must still face double standards and body-snarking in Identity Thief. One such bit involves her telling Peet that nothing happened sexually between her and Bateman on their road trip; this is intended as a joke because we’re supposed to laugh at the unlikely idea that he would ever have been sexual interested in her. And most troublingly, her character endures a fair bit of physical violence at the hands of several male characters, and these scenes are all played for laughs. Watching this onscreen, it is impossible to imagine such acts being perpetrated against Anna Faris or Cameron Diaz; audiences would be turned off by the “hitting a girl” factor. But because McCarthy is so clownish and physically formidable, it’s presented as okay because she can “take it.” But this has troubling implications, effectively stating that McCarthy is somehow less than female because of her size.
Not that this is any fault of McCarthy’s performance. She is a gifted physical comedian, and as her performance makes clear, she is equally as adept at connecting with audiences dramatically as she is comedically (although the film is certainly uneven in its presentation of her character arc). Make no mistake, Identity Thief gives you a whooooole lot of Melissa McCarthy, and for those that find her even the slightest bit annoying, this film will undoubtedly push them over the edge. One’s enjoyment of this film is predicated entirely by the extent to which one enjoys McCarthy. She is the combustible fuel that propels this entertaining but mediocre ship forward. Bateman does his usual comedy straight man shtick, expertly deploying all four of his trademark go-to comedy moves along the way. At 112 minutes, Identity Thief runs a bit long for a comedy, but the thrill of watching McCarthy at work makes it worthwhile.
Identity Thief opens nationwide today.