Melissa McCarthy will never be accused of being subtle - she made her name (in movies at least) by being so over-the-top that audiences weren’t sure what to make of her; but they liked what they saw. She was not only funny, but also intriguing: an authentic oddball that took a gross caricature in "Bridesmaids" and made it worthy of an Oscar nomination. Ask anyone that saw "This is 40" and they’ll likely say that the film’s funniest moments come in the final credits, when an outtake of one of the better scenes, involving McCarthy as an angry LA mom lashing out at a school administrator, shows what she is capable of with improvisation.
It is doubtful, though, that anyone will be citing "Identity Thief," her first film where she is top-billed, for shining instances of her comedy skills. In this odd couple/road comedy, she coasts through the role of a cyber-grifter who steals the identity of an unsuspecting chump (Sandy Bigelow Patterson, a mid-level finance manager played by Jason Bateman) and bleeds him dry so fast that he doesn’t know what hit him. Her weapon of choice is a credit card-cutting device that shoots out plastic with lightning speed; while her method employs a folksy charm that disarms her victim of the information she needs to close the deal.
Given the highly sophisticated world of identity theft, McCarthy’s Diana (the name she settles on) is positively quaint, with behavior worthy of a Jim Carrey character. (In fact, Carrey played such a role in the far more subversive "I Love You, Phillip Morris" a few years back.) She’s manic in her consumerism, attempting to find some kind of personal fulfillment by stacking her pink, Florida ranch house with shrink-wrapped purchases. And, despite her outward gregariousness, she’s a sad case so desperate for companionship she takes to buying tequila shots for everyone in a crowded bar. Her drunkenness gets her arrested and everyone pretty much looks at her as if she’s a freak. Her talent is she finds a seemingly bottomless credit line to satisfy her seemingly bottomless id; and, much to the victimized Patterson’s dismay, can play the legal system to his determent. Early on he learns that the only way he can save his credit score (and new executive job) is to confront Diana directly, which leads him to become a most unlikely bounty hunter.
To clear his name, he must convince Diana to come back to Denver. Reluctantly she agrees, but not before attempting numerous (and embarrassing) getaways. Director Seth Gordon and screenwriter Craig Mazin find every possible way to milk laughs from McCarthy’s girth, and towards that end she is a willing accomplice. The sight of her gasping for air as she runs along a superhighway just leaves you thinking that she’s picking up where John Candy left off. Reluctantly she joins Patterson on a road trip to Denver, which turns "Identity Thief" into the latest of the lame genre of comic odd-couple road-trip comedies.
As they head west, there are the usual comic situations - Diana picks up a bearish widow (Eric Stonestreet) at a roadhouse with plans to fleece him, but has sex with him instead. (Kudos to Stonestreet for being seemingly unrecognizable as the rube.) Others in pursuit of Diana complicate matters. They include an out-of-control skip tracer (Robert Patrick) and a pair of slick hoods (Tip ’T.I.’ Harris and Genesis Genesis Rodriguez) sent by a mob boss to rub Diana out. Inevitably Patterson becomes involved with her larceny to get back at a boorish executive (Jon Favreau) from the financial company for which he works. As the film lumbers towards its predictable conclusion, there’s even an attempt to humanize Diana, who is good with kids and a victim of early abandonment. (Or so she says, but who’s to believe her?)
It is not that this sentimentality isn’t earned (though it’s not); it just works against the subversive grain of this character. "Identity Thief" could have been the kind of film the Coen brothers would relish; instead it is a sappy, loud and disingenuous formulaic comedy. Didn’t we have enough of this with "The Guilt Trip?" Bateman is typecast in the type of role Jack Lemmon once excelled in - he’s not bad, he’s just been there before and, knowing Hollywood casting patterns will be there again. While McCarthy is a great comic actor just waiting for a vehicle that can better display her range. With "Identity Thief," she’s just slumming for the multiplexes.