Movie review: From a distance, ‘Identity Thief’ looks good

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Think of this as a movie review or as just a friendly warning from a like-minded individual: “Identity Thief” looked really good from a distance. In fact, it looked like it couldn’t miss. Melissa McCarthy has emerged in the last two years as one of the funniest and most promising comic actresses around, and the idea of matching her exuberant relentlessness with Jason Bateman’s long-suffering, sardonicism (yes, that’s really a word) seemed inspired.


Indeed, it was inspired. It inspired financial backing, an advertising campaign, two estimable talents and all the movie-goers who are planning to see it this weekend. The only people it most certainly didn’t inspire were Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten, who wrote the screenplay. “Identity Thief” is not only not funny. It’s negative funny. It’s short on laughs, but it will disturb and annoy.


What seemed like a good idea – a comedy based on the phenomenon of identity theft – turned out to be comic quicksand. McCarthy plays Diana, a Florida woman who has made a life of stealing people’s identities, getting fake credit cards under the stolen name and running up enormous bills. Her latest victim is a nice guy named Sandy on the other side of the country, who gets an inkling something is wrong when his credit card is rejected at a gas station. His second clue comes when the cops arrest him for having been drunk and disorderly in Florida. He’s in Denver.


If you’ve followed along this far, you might already be able diagnose the movie’s fatal flaw: The concept of one person stealing another’s identity might be amusing in the abstract, but the minute you start filling in the details, it becomes the stuff of drama, not comedy. This is especially the case in “Identity Theft,” in which Sandy (Bateman) is a sweet guy, a hardworking family man with a third child on the way, who has finally lucked into a high-paying job. But now he faces dismissal, the complete destruction of his life, because of an imbecile in Florida.


“Identity Thief” is constructed, believe it or not, as a road movie, a buddy comedy, in which two seeming opposites find common ground. Sandy goes down to Florida to bring Diana back to Denver, so she can explain the whole situation to his boss. That a borderline sociopath would do a favor for a complete stranger – one who clearly means her ill – is far-fetched even in the loose terms of zany comedy. Even if she wanted to leave town, there is no reason she wouldn’t ditch him at some point along the way.


Actually, “Identity Thief” seems to be an attempt to wed a hot topic to the structure of “Midnight Run,” the 1988 classic starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. Call it a coincidence, but both films feature two antagonists on a cross country trip. In both, they’re chased by mobsters (played here by T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez) and by a bounty hunter (played here by Robert Patrick). In “Midnight Run,” the men become better people for knowing each other; whereas “Identity Thief” is so clumsily written that we’re told that that happens even though it doesn’t.


There are holes in the story you could float a blimp through and loose ends everywhere, but none of that would matter if “Identity Thief” had a spark of joy, some honest life to it. There is none.


It’s just an irritant, and the worst kind to boot, one that resorts to fake sentiment in the end, like a scoundrel begging for a reprieve. Yes, two or three times McCarthy, through an unexpected reading of a weak line, can coax a laugh -- she’s that talented –and Bateman is true to his role, which is to be a dramatic character facing personal tragedy, who just happens to be stuck in a supposed comedy.


But that’s the best that can be said for “Identity Thief,” and even that’s not much.


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