It almost seems inevitable.
First, you’ve got that moment when a comic performer breaks through giving a performance in a supporting role in someone else’s film, and everyone goes crazy about how good they are and then next thing you know, scripts that have been sitting around in development get hastily rewritten and that supporting part that was created for Jim Carrey is suddenly just right for this person, and this film that was just sort of stalled out is suddenly a priority because that’s the reward for that breakthrough moment, even though nine times out of ten, that reward ends up being sort of terrible.
It is a perfect example of how the best intentions, and the most logical business practices, can still result in a flat-out terrible movie. Right now, we’re about to see what happened because of every single review that pointed out how funny Melissa McCarthy was in “Bridesmaids.” When I visited the set for that film, it was obvious immediately that whatever McCarthy was doing, she wasn’t doing it halfway. She was very funny in conversation, but she was also very clear about how much work she’d done to help figure out the character she was playing. And by the time the work-in-progress screening at SXSW finished, it was obvious that she had pretty much wrestled “Bridesmaids” to the floor and beaten it senseless.
An Oscar-nominated role in a monster box-office sensation is how you guarantee yourself a ton of work, and so this year, we’ll get several films that she stars in, and we’ll see if the public is going to turn out because she’s on the poster. This is the moment where Hollywood pays close attention to see if they build films around her or if they hire her supporting in other people’s movies. This is the moment where her appeal gets tested. And it would help if she was starring in a film that wasn’t resolutely awful, because the only thing “Identity Thief” will truly test is the patience of the people who pay to see it.
Ultimately, the premise itself is so problematic that the script by Craig Mazin never overcomes those inherent obstacles, and better films than this have crashed on these same rocks. Basically, when you build your comedy around a sociopath, that’s a very hard balancing act. The fun of a character like that is seeing just how far they’ll go and how little they seem to care about the consequences, but it can be very difficult to build real sympathy for that character because of that same exact quality. In this film, when we meet the character played by McCarthy, she is such a colossal piece of garbage, such a blatant criminal with no regard for her victims, that it’s not possible to just shake that off later. Its not even like they make her someone who has a philosophical axe to grind. If she picked her victims and only targeted fat-cats who deserved what they got, that might solve the issue, and for a few minutes here and there, the film seems to be heading in that direction. Seth Gordon’s last film “Horrible Bosses” was another movie that flirted with something more potent only to trade it for the cheap and easy instead. There’s a whole lot of “Identity Thief” that is very loud and very busy, but there’s little of it that feels genuine.
Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) is right on the verge of getting everything he’s ever wanted for his wife Trish (Amanda Peet) and his two kids. He’s just been hired away from the firm where he’s been undervalued and finally signed for the salary that will change his life, and suddenly everything goes to shit all at once. His credit collapses and there are warrants out for his arrest, and he has no idea why. Turns out, it’s thanks to the worst efforts of Diana (McCarthy), who has taken advantage of his unisex name. He gets the most dubious legal advice I think I’ve ever heard from the investigating cop (Morris Chestnut) and decides to go across the country on his own to physically transport this con artist back to his home in Denver so he can get her to give a statement to his boss while police listen in from the next room. Never mind the patent illegality of him taking anyone anywhere against their will, it just doesn’t establish any sort of credible rooting interest in what’s happening because it’s so convoluted, so illogical. The grace of something like a “Planes Trains and Automobiles” or “Rain Man” is that they manage to force the characters into their close quarters in a way that feels like it might happen or like at the very least it could happen. I don’t buy any part of the decision that motivates Sandy onto the plane to Florida, so nothing that happens afterwards works for me, either. There are more people on the trail of Diana, including Julian (T.I.) and Marisol (Genesis Rodriguez) who want to kill her and a grizzled skip tracer (Robert Patrick) who is determined to cash her in. Throw in a really tone-deaf sexual misadventure with a weepy drunken cowboy (Eric Stonestreet), and you’ve got an artificial road trip comedy that doesn’t earn any of what it tries to elicit from the audience. There’s a turn late in the film where Diana finally gets “real,” and it’s played in a way that is obviously meant to be the tug on the heartstrings, but there’s just no way. You can’t play this character as a malicious little asshole who causes our “hero” endless amounts of physical damage, psychic distress, and financial ruin and then just turn on the tears because that’s what is supposed to happen on a beat chart.
Jon Favreau plays a small role as the asshole boss whose behavior is what motivates Sandy to take a chance with a start-up company, and if the film could make that character and some of that set-up work thematically with the notion of identity theft and the misappropriation of personal finances and information, then maybe you could justify this. But there’s no way a person who is as victimized as Sandy is by a certain point in this film ever forgives the person who put him in that position in the first place. Robert Patrick and Genesis Rodriguez and T.I. are all playing villains from another film altogether, and while I welcome Rodriguez in any onscreen appearance, I don’t think the “crazy criminals trying to kill them” material is remotely funny. Pretty much every talented person cast here is wasted by the film, but Bateman and McCarthy in particular just push as hard as they can to no avail. If they didn’t want to bother with the phony “make McCarthy’s character into a sympathetic figure” move, then it might have worked out better. Bateman’s funniest moments are where he has no moral hesitation about kicking the crap out of McCarthy and when he is blatantly horrible to her in conversation. They tone that down quickly, though, which feels like a mistake.
I get why it was made. I get what film everyone thought they were signing on to make. But “Identity Thief” just plain doesn’t work. It is a deal memo in search of an actual movie, that sophomore miscalculation that can cool a suddenly hot comedy career just as quickly as the earlier film made it happen. After this, there’s a lot of pressure on “The Heat” to be a strong vehicle for McCarthy, because if that one doesn’t work, it’s going to make “Bridesmaids” look like a fluke, whether that’s fair or not. I’m curious to see how McCarthy manages things from here, and I can hardly begrudge her this one, awful as it may be.
“Identity Thief” opens Friday. It’s best if we not speak of this again.