How the Hell Did 'Identity Thief' Make So Much Money!?

At around the same time Mayor Michael Bloomberg's bill to ban the sale of bathtub-sized containers of soft-drinks rich in high fructose corn syrup was blocked, “Identity Thief” crossed the $120 million mark in box office receipts. Call it a coincidence but we're reading signs in the (sweet, sweet iced) tea leaves. Our culture is killing itself and asking for seconds. We may never know why, but why can at least try to understand how.

Oh, "Identity Thief". Its 22% on Rotten Tomatoes, D+ on Criticwire and 35 on Metacritic couldn't have possibly inspired anyone to see the picture. Even the “good” reviews were couched in backhanded compliments. Manhola Dargis' pullquote from Metacritic (which designated her review at a high 60) says “as is the case with other unsatisfactory diversions, it is entirely possible to ignore the worst parts of this movie, to drift along during the lulls, slide over the half-baked jokes . . .” Despite such warnings the movie still made Whopper-sized money for an alleged comedy. Especially worrying is the fact that the film didn't rest on the laurels of its robust opening weekend, dipping only 31.5% in its second frame, and reclaiming the top spot the following week after "A Good Day to Die Hard" burned out.

“Identity Thief” was typed by a guy named Craig Mazin, whose body of work suggests that he opens his screenwriting software the same way that J. Robert Oppenheimer opened the atom. Mr. Mazin is the same destroyer of culture responsible for the barbaric “The Hangover Part II” as well as “Scary Movie 3,” “Scary Movie 4” and “Superhero Movie.” (I haven't had the pleasure of viewing those films, so I'm unable to remark on their absence of wit firsthand.)

Mazin, you'll be surprised to learn, is a graduate of Princeton University, and while it's true that George W. Bush is also a graduate of Yale, this is probably an indicator that the guy who thinks it's hilarious to point out that “Sandy's a girl's name bwah ha ha” has something going on upstairs. Mazin cohosts a podcast (with "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" screenwriter John August) about screenwriting and the entertainment biz. This leads me to believe that “Identity Thief” does not represent a developmentally challenged man's best effort, but is actually a movie made by design.

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I know it is frightening to think that any film with as many logical contradictions and cheap fat jokes is that way on purpose, but, as Metacritic user Chuyin5 so astutely observes: “YOU WILL LAUGH! Get your popcorn, pop and candy and ENJOY IT! Don't mind what the 'critics' say.” There are people out there who are drawn to this stuff and -- once the investment is made -- cling to the notion that what they saw was good.

“Identity Thief” was released on February 8th, the dead zone for quality new wide releases, and films in which the lead character may not even be technically alive ("Warm Bodies", the film from which "Identity Thief" stole the box office throne, is the story of a young zombie who falls in love). Sure, the season offers a legitimately strong movie every so often -- last year's “The Grey” January 27 is proof enough -- but such titles feel like major anomalies on the calendar.  This is the heart of Oscar season, so with big Hollywood trying to force feed a film that requires a modicum of thinking – like, say, “Zero Dark Thirty,” which one would think could fulfill a jingoistic mainstream America – it's a lot easier to go for something familiar. Give me that Big Gulp soda.

“Identity Thief's” poster (which, yes, features an image of the lead actress clutching a giant sugar drink) offers a filmgoing experience without surprises. Like Mazin no doubt preaches on his podcast, it follows “beats.” You are going to hate Melissa McCarthy, then you will have road experiences with her, then at the end you will love her. In the thick of the third act there will be tearful catharsis and everyone will have learned something and grown. Or at least there will be enough lip service to make it seem that way, because that's the convention, that's how we know we're seeing a movie. If you have to send and receive texts or step out to grab a refill, you won't miss anything in this flick. Where'd you go today? We saw “Identity Thief.” Was it good? Yeah, it's exactly what I wanted it to be just like Burger King's Go Large special number three so I liked it and you should see it, too.

McCarthy's size, discussion of which became a bit of an ugly subject thanks to a particularly crude reviewer, can and should be used as marketing. Women of her body type exist – many lead full and enriched lives, others live unexamined and dreary lives, just as people of all body types do. Rarely, however, are women of this body type starring in feature films, so there's no question some were drawn to “Identity Thief” to see a representation of “their kind.” I have no data showing that “Identity Thief” scored better in areas where enormous sodas are a hit, but I can tell you that of the $127,968,538 it made as of March 20th, only $3,168,888 was earned outside of the United States (source.) “Identity Thief”'s success has to be due, at least in part, to identity politics. Let's go see a movie about one of us, they thought.

And the desire for such representations is by no means restricted to gender or shape. Wide swaths of America's population (read: people who live between New York and L.A.) are likely frustrated by how seldom they see themselves reflected on screen (although these days that might apply to anyone without superpowers). "Identity Thief" is a movie about a guy from a land-locked state who's suddenly forced into a story of mundane financial revenge, a reasonably plausible "Death Wish" for office drones everywhere.

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The film's path to success is a jarring counterpart to that charted by Ang Lee's "Life of Pi". The film -- which grossed only 20% of its $603,577,561 domestically -- is about a character who struggles to survive while stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean with nothing but a feral tiger for company. Make of that what you will. It's hard to lay any of the film's commercial success at the feet of Jason Bateman, whose wildly inconsistent box office track record is hard to reconcile with the fact that he plays the same tweaked version of Michael Bluth in every one of his movies.

The good news, besides the fact that McCarthy's meteoric rise to fame will invite a lot of people to go back and discover the infinite wonders of "Gilmore Girls," is that a market is out there for female actors who don't conform to the standard notion of a pin-up model to open a picture. Maybe just in comedies right now, but it's a start. Surely “Identity Thief”'s grosses represent some repeat business and, God help us, decent word of mouth. Let's not focus on that and instead imagine a world where Melissa McCarthy is allowed to own the leading role of a good comedy. (This summer's “The Heat” may, indeed, end up being such a thing.) Unfortunately, until the day when film studios are run by Mike Bloomberg types whose admittedly aggressive altruism keeps us from filling ourselves on the most vile garbage we can find, we may continue to pay the price for Hollywood's success.