Saturday, August 10, 2013

Identity Thief

Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet, Genesis Rodriguez, T.I., Morris Chestnut, John Cho, Robert Patrick, Eric Stonestreet, Jonathan Banks
Running Time: 111 min.
Rating: R

★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

I'm not sure what's scarier: Identity Thief cleaning up at the box office, raking in at upwards of 130 million dollars, or the thought of moviegoers leaving the theater in hysterics as they talk about their favorite scenes. Melissa McCarthy punching unsuspecting victims in the throat to evade capture? Jason Bateman's character being repeatedly told he has a girl's name? Or maybe, given the time and expense it takes to go to a movie these days, the scariest thought is picturing anyone being excited to see it in the first place and actually making plans to do so. But don't blame them. They just want to get out of the house, shut their minds off for a couple of hours and have a reasonably good time. That's what these comedies are for. And I totally understand that. It's fine. But can't we pick something a little more worthwhile than this? I laughed exactly once during this, making a mental note of what happened during that rare scene so I could mention it. And now, days later, I have literally no idea what it was. That's emblematic of Horrible Bosses director Seth Gordon's entire film, which piles on as many forgettable road trip/buddy comedy cliches it can while lazily tacking on a stolen identity plotline. Worse yet, it wastes the comedic talents of two actors who deserve much better.

Barely making ends meet at home and feeling the pressure at work, Colorado accountant Sandy Patterson (Bateman), is about to have his identity stolen. The woman doing the stealing is Diana (McCarthy), who uses a phone scam to obtain his info and live it up in Florida, treating herself to salon trips and late nights at the bar at Sandy's expense. A feat made that much easier by his unisex-sounding name. But when her wild behavior gets her in trouble with the law and the local cops pull up a mugshot, they inform him that they can't do anything unless she's brought to Denver. So with his job on the line, Sandy heads to Florida determined to track her down and bring her back with the promise that he won't press charges. Unfortunately, the boisterous, foul-mouthed Diana won't be going quietly and has already amassed a laundry list of enemies who'd like to take her down first. Already facing skepticism from his wife (Amanda Peet) and new boss (John Cho), Sandy has to find a way to control this clearly out-of-control con-woman long enough to get them both back safely and clear his name.

Amidst its many problems, the central one in Identity Thief is how overbearing and shameless the movie is in begging you to root for a couple of characters who are really kind of jerks. While that in itself shouldn't be an issue because we cheer on unlikable characters all the time, there's something about the way this whole scenario is set up and plays out that makes it especially insulting. Bateman's character starts off as kind of a hapless fool naively sucked into a scam, which is the path they should have followed since the actor specializes in playing hapless, likable underdogs. But instead, Craig Mazin's script makes Sandy more entitled and arrogant as the story wears on, to the point that I almost felt like rooting for Diana escape. That is if she wasn't also such a one-dimensional stereotype. Having two comic actors as likable and engaging as McCarthy and Bateman play two such unlikable people could be viewed as a mistake from the onset, but it didn't have to be since both are talented enough to pull it off had the material given them interesting characters to play. Instead it forces the co-stars (who in fairness do work well together) to wring laughs out of nothing besides the fact he's a married, straight-laced businessman forced to take a road trip with a brash, loud-mouthed female crook who sort of resembles Mimi from The Drew Carey Show.

Why the movie is even 'R' rated is somewhat of a mystery considering how safe and predictable it is, making all the vulgar, sexual stuff seem like it's jammed in for show. The script fares even worse when dealing with anything related to the legal or criminal end of things. Besides the premise stretching credibility to the max even for an absurd comedy, there's one too many supporting criminal players and obtrusive sub-plots, all of which are poorly handled. Besides the cops in Denver, there's a maniacal skiptracer (Robert Patrick) after Diana for a bounty and a couple of well-dressed baddies (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I.) after her for giving a drugrunner some bad credit cards. That he's played, however briefly, by Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks was one of the few moments that made me grin. But a romantic interlude of sorts between Diana and a macho cowboy-type character named Big Chuck (Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet) is as painfully unfunny as it is overlong.

It's practically impossible to talk about the movie without discussing the controversy sorrounding Rex Reed's "review" of it, which seemed to gain more media attention than the film itself for obvious reasons. If Reed was legitimately concerned about McCarthy's health (unlikely) or trying to start a conversation about how overweight actors and actresses are portrayed on screen, then he should have done so, as few would argue the latter is a discussion worth having. Resorting to childish name-calling and personal attacks did nothing but perpetuate the unfair stereotyping he's falsely claiming to call attention to. What's worse is that the character's weight (while never mentioned explicitly) could actually be considered an issue in terms of how she's been perceived, leading to a potentially intelligent debate about how performers of size are always cast in clownish, embarrassing roles. But Reed clearly wasn't interested in any of that. His comments had no relevance to the film whatsoever and only bolstered the public's already negative opinion of critics.

As unenjoyable as Identity Thief is, it does deserve credit for at least attempting to treat the character as more than a cartoon in the last act. Ultimately, that also fails, coming too late and completely clashing with the the rest of the picture's mean-spirited tone. This of course makes it no different than most other mainstream comedies that feel the need to tack on a safe, happy ending when it's completely uncalled for. Does anyone doubt these two will be best friends by the end of the picture? Still, that whole Reed fiasco did made me wonder what kind of comedy we'd have if McCarthy and Amanda Peet's roles were reversed. The material's still uninspired, but at least it would have gained points for casting originality and given both actresses something radically different to do. Or we could just lock Rex Reed in the car for a torturous road trip with the female Sandy Patterson.

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