Identity Thief is desperate to be a classic awkward-buddy road-trip comedy in which a heavy, awkward, larger-than-life figure pairs up with a skinny straight man.
Chris Farley and David Spade made a much-loved pair of such films (Black Sheep and Tommy Boy), but the genre’s reigning champ is John Candy, Steve Martin, and writer-director John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, the stars of Identity Thief, are at no risk of dethroning any of these comedy teams. Their picture is unlikely to enter the pantheon of buddy comedies.
Bateman reprises the persona he assumed in 2003 when the cult sitcom “Arrested Development” debuted on Fox. He plays Sandy Patterson, a put-upon executive who plays by the rules, squirrels away a nut or two each paycheck, and is treated remarkably poorly by his firm’s boorish partners. He jumps at the chance to join a breakaway group of junior executives who will pay, and treat, him better than his current employers.
There is a hitch, however. It turns out that Sandy is wanted for skipping a court date in Florida, his credit cards have been mysteriously maxed out, and he is the prime suspect in a drug-and-guns investigation.
McCarthy’s Diana, a lonely woman up to no good in the Sunshine State, has stolen Sandy’s identity. He must transport Diana from Florida to Denver by car and avoid not only a maniacal bounty hunter but also a pair of gangsters in order to clear his name, start his job, and receive his reward.
McCarthy plays the role like a female Chris Farley would do. She is physical and awkward and willing to throw herself around for a laugh and brashly stumble her way from Point A to Point B.
Unfortunately, the script spoils what could have been a winning turn from McCarthy. It is hard to dredge up any sympathy for Diana, especially during the film’s first 90 minutes. She’s a horrible little troll. She’s a deeply amoral, borderline sociopathic career criminal. She does not care that she is ruining the life of a man with two small children. She’s not an amusing sprite. She’s a disgusting warthog.
Identity Thief fails in the film’s early going by making Diana so deeply unlikable. Farley and Candy may have brought the same kind of brassy arrogance to their characters, but the characters themselves were goodhearted. They were boorish, certainly, but they were also trying to do the right thing.
The knucklehead heir Farley played in Tommy Boy may be a goof, but he also clearly loves the town he is trying to save. Similarly, in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Candy’s shower-curtain-ring salesman is awkward and gross, and he puts Steve Martin’s character in a number of difficult spots, but he doesn’t do so out of spite or malice. He’s just trying to help.
Director Seth Gordon and writer Craig Mazin make things worse when they try to foster sympathy for Diana by blaming her faults on society. The audience is informed that she wasn’t loved enough as a child. She seems to think that hoarding material possessions will fill the hole in her soul.
Give me a break.
Though occasionally funny and filled with amusing bit-performances—Robert Patrick’s bounty hunter is good for several hearty laughs, as is “Modern Family’s” Eric Stonestreet as Diana’s truck stop paramour—Identity Thief’s deeply unlikable co-protagonist stops this would-be buddy comedy in its tracks.