There’s no reason a comedy about a common criminal who steals another person’s identity can’t be any good. Most of us have a million passwords floating around online, mini digital gateways that lead deep into our financial and personal lives. Who doesn’t worry that some conniving hacker guy might sneak in and try to fool the world into thinking he or she is us? When it’s not terrifying, paranoia can be hilarious.
But “Identity Thief” doesn’t trade in paranoia. Instead, it’s a picture in which one character continually debases herself for laughs while the other assumes an air of benumbed consternation. Watch Melissa McCarthy, camped out in a cheap motel room, do unholy things to a hefty real-estate guy in a bolo tie! See Jason Bateman squirm in the next room, trying to block out the sounds of cheap, tawdry, surprisingly athletic sex! That’s about as funny as “Identity Thief” gets. It’s less about stealing another human being’s name (and money) than about sapping the audience’s will to live.
Whose fault is that, exactly? In “Identity Thief,” a struggling Denver finance guy named Sandy Patterson (Bateman) falls prey to a Winter Park, Fla., con artist who also – miracle of miracles! – happens to be named Sandy Patterson. Actually, she isn’t. Her real name is Diana – or is it? – and she’s played by McCarthy, who seems to be out to steamroll everyone in her path, including her co-star.
“Identity Thief” is less a cohesive, structured comedy than it is a collection of supposedly uproarious events stacked on top of each other. The picture begins as a sort of revenge fantasy, in which the victimized party sets out to reclaim what’s rightfully his. Once he finally tracks his nemesis down, the two take to the road: Sandy wants to haul Diana back to Denver, get her thrown in jail, and begin to put his life back together.
The road is predictably bumpy. Director Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses”) and writer Craig Mazin (working from a story by Mazin and Jerry Eeten) orchestrate all sorts of messes for Sandy and Diana to get themselves into and out of. At one point during their travels, Diana plays on a waitress’ sympathy in order to score a free meal. “He can’t lie with me – like a husband – because of his accident,” she says winsomely, gesturing toward the apoplectic Sandy on the other side of the table. Diana doesn’t just want the free meal – she wants Sandy to pay for it with his ego. (Forget that she’s already filled her house with blenders, microwaves and Dyson vacuums that were paid for with his stolen credit cards.)
Meanwhile, a redneck skiptracer (Robert Patrick) and two slick drug dealers (played by Genesis Rodriguez and rapper T.I.) are also after Diana; they ratchet up the mayhem considerably but also needlessly. Through it all, Sandy’s pregnant wife (a sorely misused Amanda Peet) waits at home for him to return.
“Identity Thief” was probably designed to showcase McCarthy, but it doesn’t cast her in the best light. She may be a genuinely gifted comedienne: Her off-color, free form outtakes at the end of “This is 40” were funnier than anything in that movie. But here, McCarthy just finds a groove and hunkers down in it, grinding away. The cheap psychology that’s clumsily glued onto her role doesn’t help: You see, Diana treats people abominably because she herself, being a rather large woman, has so often been the object of cruelty. It’s not enough for McCarthy to play one uproariously bad-ass bad gal; she must also be redeemed, while Bateman’s Sandy looks on with a dumb, benign smile.
Bateman, who has the heart of a straight man and the timing of a comic, deserves better. And McCarthy, whether you love her, hate her, or straddle the fence, shouldn’t be stuck with this kind of crap, either. Watching “Identity Thief” will steal nearly two hours of your life that you’ll never get back. It takes far more than it gives.