Sunday, February 10, 2013

Take it On the Run: IDENTITY THIEF

Melissa McCarthy is a talented performer, a funny, versatile woman who brings a full commitment to each and every part she plays. She deserves every bit of success that her breakout Oscar-nominated role in Bridesmaids is bringing her, but hopefully that success includes better roles than the one she has in Identity Thief. She co-stars in the title role as a woman who hijacks identities, wrings out all their financial potential, and then leaves her unknown-to-her victims to sort out the mess that’s left of their livelihoods. The movie wants to get big laughs out of her repulsive antagonistic sociopathic behaviors and then draw the audience in with sympathy for her simply through affection for the actress underneath. It’s not only a step too far for the film’s emotional journey, but it’s unfair to the character and the audience as well.

It’s a movie held together by one of those only-in-the-movies plots that exists only as an excuse to force two actors through an episodic series of run-ins with eccentric caricatures. Jason Bateman finds that his credit cards are maxed out, his credit rating just hit rock bottom, and he’s wanted for assault in Florida. As he’s in Colorado and definitely not the woman in the mug shot on file, he’s let go. The police tell him that unless the criminal who stole his identity showed up in their office, it could take a year or more to get his finances back in order. This is unacceptable to him, what with the pending promotion and a pregnant wife, so he heads off to find the thief and trick her into going back to Denver with him and confessing. It’s the kind of premise that invites far more questions than the script has any interest in answering.

Now, why his credit card company didn’t immediately flag the Florida charges as potentially fraudulent, I’m not sure. Why, as a reasonably intelligent character who works in finance, would we see him in the first scene giving his social security number over the phone to a person who called him claiming to be from a fraud detection agency? Who knows? It all exists simply to get the plot rolling, which in turn only exists to keep itself rolling. It falls apart not only if you think about it, but also even if you don’t. No matter. Bateman’s a fine straight man, especially when he gets the chance to show that deep down he’s just as crazy as all the other characters. He’s just better at hiding it. (See: Arrested Development. No seriously. See it if you haven’t. It’s great.) Here he doesn’t get that chance as he’s understandably upset that he ends up driving cross country with McCarthy as she’s chased by a bounty hunter (Robert Patrick) and a couple of gun-toting underlings (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I.) answering to a tough-as-nails drug dealer (Jonathan Banks, drifting off of his Breaking Bad menace).

The slack one-thing-after-another plot is filled with thoroughly unfunny car crashes and shootouts interspersed between cameos (Jon Favreau, John Cho, Eric Stonestreet, etc.) and long sequences of forced bonding between the charming-despite-the-writing leads. Director Seth Gordon, whose debut film The King of Kong has earned him perhaps too much good will from me, and whose tepidly dark comedy Horrible Bosses seems much better by comparison to Identity Thief, just can’t make this movie work. Craig Mazin’s screenplay is built around the kind of deeply psychologically damaged character that’s difficult to laugh at and hard to see a way to laugh with. By the end, it just gets sad. Of course, by then the filmmakers have expected us to be liking the thief for no other reason than because she’s pathetic, has a sad backstory, and because McCarthy’s so likable. It’s an emotional turn on which the entirety of the climax hinges and it just doesn’t work. Bateman tries his hardest to sell it, and it’s never going to be easy to dismiss the formidable McCarthy, but the material is just not there. It’s a lazy farce that could’ve used some tightening up, but even then would still be built on the unsteady foundation of miscalculated characterizations that fine actors could hardly save. As it is, they’re good enough to get close, but that’s not quite close enough.

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