With “Identity Thief,” Melissa McCarthy proves she’s got what it takes to carry a feature, however meager the underlying material. Sustaining the same brand of unpredictable energy that made her such an effective scene-stealer in “Bridesmaids” and “This Is 40,” McCarthy plays the tornado to Jason Bateman’s uptight nebbish, an accountant who drives halfway across the country to confront the zealous con artist who stole his personal information, maxed out his credit cards and tarnished his good name. Though this adult-skewing comedy looks like a midrange performer at best, McCarthy’s credit rating should skyrocket.
The perfect sucker, Sandy Patterson (Bateman, reteaming with “Horrible Bosses” director Seth Gordon) is an underappreciated bean-counter for a Denver mega-corporation who naively offers a chipper-sounding telemarketer (McCarthy) his vital details, then seems astonished when his credit card is declined at the pump. Pulled over a few blocks later by cops with a warrant for his arrest, Sandy learns that in addition to racking up extravagant purchases on his cards, the female impersonating him also jumped bail and tried to evade narcotics charges in Florida.
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From where the audience sits, the irony is that hardly anyone would want this guy’s identity to begin with. Apart from his androgynous-sounding name — the source of a running series of emasculating jokes — Sandy seems as straight-laced and uninteresting as they come, though the casting department supplies him with crazy-hot wife Amanda Peet to cheerlead from the sidelines. In all other respects, he’s a chump, and what his life needs most is something to shake him up and remind him he’s a man. Certainly that’s the idea of sending him on a road trip to “pretty much the worst place in America” to apprehend his doppelganger and drag her back to face charges in Denver.
Anyone who’s ever been the target of such fraud can tell you that trying to track down an identity thief in person is the last thing to do, but screenwriter Craig Mazin (who shares story credit with Jerry Eeten) has conceived a razor-blades-on-the-outside, mushy-in-the-middle laffer where the culprit isn’t half as bad as she initially seems. On first encounter, fake “Sandy,” aka Diane (McCarthy), freaks out when her mark confronts her, stealing his car and trying to ram him off the highway. As if she weren’t dangerous enough, it turns out that Diane’s being pursued by a pair of contract killers (Tip “T.I.” Harris and Genesis Rodriguez), who barge into her white-trash lair with guns blazing (the art directors clearly had a field day cramming a tiny home with as much tacky shopping-spree booty as they could manage).
Sandy’s plan is to drag Diane back to Denver and clear his record. Not trusting the basic road-trip premise to carry the show, the script piles on several tired ’80s-movie cliches, thrusting the pair into artificial peril as they try to outmaneuver an aggressive redneck bounty hunter (Robert Patrick), those two hitmen and the cops. But the funniest moments have nothing to do with these gimmicks, relying on the character-driven dynamic between the pic’s polar-opposite protags, as when Diane demonstrates her quick wit by inventing humiliating cover stories for the couple wherever they go.
However grating Sandy may find her, Diane is undeniably charming to everyone they meet, a lonely woman driven by an insatiable desire to be loved — a quality that brings auds around to her side long before Sandy realizes there might be more to this woman than he first imagined. Since the writers have left Bateman’s character such a blank (with no real problems of his own to work out en route), the film’s success depends almost entirely on the salty energy McCarthy brings to the equation.
Among the cameos peppered along the way, the rowdiest — and most unrecognizable — comes from “Modern Family’s” Eric Stonestreet as Big Chuck, a cowboy haplessly smitten with Diane. The ensuing love scene is sure to leave scars for some viewers, but serves to defuse whatever romantic chemistry auds might expect between the two leads. It’s actually surprising that “Identity Thief” doesn’t allow love to bloom between Sandy and Diane: By never considering Diane as a rival for Peet’s wooden housewife, the film reveals plus-size problems baked into its body-image ideas.
Generally speaking, the brightly lensed, snappily edited pic leaves auds wanting more, despite a few distracting visual effects and one or two dead-end subplots it could have done without.