There's a smart comedy lurking somewhere inside director Seth Gordon's Identity Thief.
But this mess onscreen — an R-rated mishmash of put downs and outbursts, gun violence and car stunts, with jokes and gags wedged in between — isn't it.
Other than the broadest sense of a comedy, I have no idea of what Gordon was attempting with this film, and I'm not convinced he could tell you, either.
A filmmaker who garnered immediate attention with his brilliant 2007 debut, the video-game-dork-as-metaphor-for-humanity documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Gordon has been hit and flop since with his first two feature comedies. His hit was the 2011 R-rated Horrible Bosses, his flop was the 2008 justifiably unseen and PG-13-rated Four Christmases.
Given his recent success, Identity Thief is a step backward, a sinking comedy vessel that takes its two talented and funny stars, Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, down with it.
Bateman plays Sandy Patterson, a button-down accountant with a Denver financial firm whose placid life is disrupted after his identity is stolen by a Miami-area con artist named Diana, played by McCarthy. Sandy Patterson has the misfortune of a uni-sex name. Even more unfortunate, he falls for Diana's over-the-phone scam and lacks the commonsense to not give a stranger his social security number. (And he's the guy trusted to handle the important and secret financial documents for his company.)
His mental faux pas helps Diana create a new life for herself as Sandy Patterson, complete with new IDs and credit cards. An audacious mega-shopper even by Lindsay Lohan standards, Diana quickly runs up big bills at the real Sandy's expense. But just so we don't thoroughly dislike her, Craig Mazin's script makes Diana a loner and overweight outcast desperately looking for acceptance. It's by stealing identities that pitiful Diana can buy friends, including running-up obscene bar tabs to curry adoration from complete strangers.
Meanwhile, the real Sandy quits his job — his boss (Jon Favreau, in a quick cameo with the film's best line, a joke about Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead) is a jerk anyway — for an even better gig with a huge promotion and pay raise. This is great news for his expectant wife (Amanda Peet), as the couple is already struggling financially with two younger daughters. It's a declined credit card that first tips off Sandy to his credit troubles, followed by a series of circumstances (and gaping holes in logic) that put his new job in jeopardy and require him to fly to Florida, apprehend Diana, and bring her back to Denver to clear his name.
And thus Identity Thief turns into an over-inflated road movie, featuring, at various times, police officers, mob enforcers, a skiptracer, car chases, hostage situations, shootings, and another get-rich-quick ID theft. Competing with these noisy distractions from the comedy are the improvisations of McCarthy in almost every extended screen time, and Bateman tossing in jokes when permitted.
McCarthy is a comic force and gifted physical comedian who uses her sizable frame to advantage, much like John Belushi and, to a lesser degree, Chris Farley. But she's also given too much screen time, with Bateman's understated and caustic performance often trampled upon if not crowded out completely. The pair work well together, though, as part of a funny cameo by Eric Stonestreet (Cameron on ABC's Modern Family) as a randy cowboy named Big Chuck who falls for Diana at a small-town bar and who is open to the idea of strange sexual practices, but even that gag is stretched too long.
Mazin is best known as one of the writers on The Hangover Part II, and he's clearly going for another comedy of extremes with Identity Thief, though with less raunchy gags and more heartfelt moments, as Diana and Sandy bond over their tribulations and grow to understand and then like each other. Even his family accepts her — never mind how much trouble she's caused everyone.
Identity Thief hints at the potential for a promising dark comedy of cultural reflection; a war on classes, with Sandy's former boss getting his with Diana's help, or a film that mocks our consumer-based society, instead of treating it as joke material and character development. None of that materializes. Instead, we're treated to a self-indulgent comedy catchall, one that's saddled with an irony for a title; that is, for a film about the value of identity, Identity Thief doesn't have a clue about what it wants to be.
Directed by Seth Gordon. Written by Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten. A Universal release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for sexual content and language. Running time: 110 minutes.
Critic's rating: **
Contact Kirk Baird firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6734.