If there still is a post-Bridesmaids question as to whether Melissa McCarthy, an audience favorite given the movie's MVP award in the form of an Oscar nomination, is a bona fide Movie Star, the most you can say for her new comedy Identity Thief is that it offers the beginning of an answer. In McCarthy's first true co-lead role, she acquits herself well, bouncing around with seemingly limitless reserves of strange energy during the film's long and unrelenting stretches of antic comedy. She also unfurls some nice ribbons of serious humanity and feeling in the film's oddly sentimental moments. It's a deftly done, well-rounded performance. The trouble is, it's maybe too good for the movie.
Identity Thief's chief problem is that it asks us to fall in love with a completely unlovable woman. McCarthy plays Diana, a tackily dressed and makeup-caked — she's one step away from Mimi Bobeck — Floridian who makes her living stealing people's identities and running their credit into the ground while she lives high on the hog. We first see her conning an unassuming Denver pencil pusher (Jason Bateman) into giving her his date of birth and social security number over the phone. See, his name is Sandy Patterson, which could easily be a woman's name, har har, so Diana can open credit cards in his name and use them without folks getting too suspicious. She does just that, going to a bar and buying everyone in the place round after round of drinks until she's hauled off to jail for public drunkenness. Meanwhile, Sandy's credit cards are cut up and his fancy new job — the one that will ensure that he and his wife (Amanda Peet), their two children, and the baby on the way can live in suburban comfort — is put into jeopardy, after the fake Sandy's dealings with some drug dealers down in Florida (she sells them phony credit cards) comes to his boss's attention. Informed by his boss and the police that the only way he can clear his name is if Diana is hauled to Denver and gives a confession, Sandy sets off to Florida to hunt this scam artist down and bring her to justice.
So the setup has us despising this rude, slovenly woman and, of course, pitying the humble worker bee whose modest finances and untarnished good name she has casually destroyed in a monumental act of greed and selfishness. But, this being a goofy road comedy, we're also supposed to like Diana and her wacky, no-holds-barred ways. Sandy is all fussily reserved and risk-averse, but Diana, as wayward a path as she may be on, at least knows how to live life and take what she wants. She's supposed to learn from him and, bizarrely, he from her. But McCarthy is too convincing as this noxious jerk. So much so that even when we get Diana's background sob story explaining why she ended up a cruel, callous crook, her deeds are still unforgivable — well-played and oddly affecting moments as those are. We want her taken to jail, for doing this blithe bit of life ruining to not just Sandy, but presumably many other innocents in the past. It's not hard to see why McCarthy would be drawn to a character like this, nasty and unlovable, but the larger movie is overly eager to redeem her, to win us to her cause. I wasn't buying it, even when the sappy music and warm lighting flooding director Seth Gordon's frame loudly implores that we do. The movie's attempts at heart-tugging sentiment are abrupt and unearned. One spends most of Identity Thief, which becomes a muddled action comedy somewhere in the middle, wishing it had the courage to be a midnight-black comedy, not scared of unsympathetic characters and moral decay. But Gordon and company are keen to tap into Apatowian softness instead, so what we get is a discordantly mushy rush job.
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Diana's unlikability infects the movie in other, more obvious ways. Nothing is terribly funny in Bateman and McCarthy's first half-dozen scenes together, largely because she's being awful and all he's doing desperately, and stupidly, to try and put his life back together. Sure there's some pleasingly silly slapstick and some nice staccato banter — including a torrent of well-employed "fucks" — but when one character is so wrong and the other is so right, the conflict feels static. Both Bateman and McCarthy have nice moments together, but by the time Sandy's feelings toward Diana change from righteous rage to weary pity, we're sick of both of them. He the drippy sap, she the conniving oaf. Their dynamic is one-note and repetitive, while supporting work from a diverse and strange group, including Eric Stonestreet, the rapper T.I., and Robert Patrick, prickles and distracts. There is an ugly pattern of gay-panic humor throughout the film, while McCarthy's large frame is the subject of way too many implicit punchlines. Like Rebel Wilson, another adept comedienne of larger size, I worry that McCarthy is relying too much on self-deprecating body humor. There's nothing wrong with a comedian using her body, whatever shape it is, but the way McCarthy derides her own sexuality in one particularly bad scene felt like cruel overkill.
As McCarthy's career continues to flourish, let's hope this first foray into stardom is remembered as only a minor blip. I'm much more bullish on this summer's The Heat, which has McCarthy teaming up with Sandra Bullock and her Bridesmaids director Paul Feig. Identity Thief is beneath her abilities — it feeds us jokes rather than letting us experience them, and panders to sentiment at the expense of its humor. A clumsy and poorly sketched comedy, Identity Thief is best looked as a stepping stone to better things. It's a tease of the real Melissa McCarthy, a star out there somewhere, still waiting to be fully discovered.