‘Identity Thief’ will steal your money

Melissa McCarthy needs better material than 'Identity Thief'
Melissa McCarthy needs better material than ‘Identity Thief’

In the first sequence of Identity Thief, Melissa McCarthy’s guileless character, Sandy/Julia/[insert other alias here] treats a barful of Winter Park, FL, strangers to unlimited drinks on the card ages just grafted from unsuspecting Denver yes man Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman). The other customers love this generous broad who has seemingly come out of nowhere to shower them with live and free spirits. And then at one point, she dives over the crowd to grab a chandelier. She misses the brass ring, and they dive out of her way, letting her land on the floor, alone, with a thud. Thief does pretty much the same thing to its star.

McCarthy’s recent success, improbable as it is, is a welcome exception to the Hollywood fairy tale. The hardworking comedienne, who trained with the Groundlings before cultivating a fan base as Gilmore girls’ Sookie St. James before winning a surprise Emmy for Mike and Molly and much-ballyhooed Oscar nomination last year for Bridesmaids, is incredibly talented. She can bounce around from genre to genre and improvise with the best of them. And so it’s great that she gets the leading role in a big studio film like Mazin’s Thief despite a script (based on a story conceived with Jerry Eeten), full of holes and lazy direction from Scott Gordon. But boy does her success come at a high price. This film hates her, and shows it at every turn.

First of all, McCarthy is saddled with an impossible character. Her Sandy has apparently lived her whole life off the grid and the grift, depleting innocent folks of their savings and destroying their credit just, well because. Mazin offers no excuse other than the fact that her appearance puts people at a distance from her, and spending lots of money helps her confidence. But as the film shows, it’s her ridiculous behavior that causes people to laugh at her. And it’s no excuse for depleting people’s life savings. But not long into her being corralled by the buttoned-down Sandy played by Bateman, we’re supposed to be won over by her id as contrasted with Bateman’s superego.

The male Sandy flies from Colorado to Florida with a week to retrieve his online impersonator so as to clear himself of a bunch of erroneous charges and continue in an executive role as a new corporation in which he has received a fantasy position. His wife (Amanda Peet), despite her pregnancy, gives him the okay, and doesn’t seem to mind as a series of forced, groan-inducing mishaps force the two “Sandys” to drive back across the country together. Bateman, who previously worked with Gordon on the similarly sketch-thin Horrible Bosses, taps into the same kind of slow burn into which he often retreats. Sometimes, it’s a smug choice, underplaying when he should be giving more, but his rhythms are right-on here. Still, I never once believed he’s the loser this movie wants him to be, not as trendily adorned as costume designer Carol Ramsey makes him and as director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe lovingly films him. Also, Shepherd Franklin’s production design suggests no clutter nor mess nor out-of-style products for these near-destitute characters.

Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy in 'Identity Thief'
Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy in ‘Identity Thief’

Mazin’s slow, episodic plot also jams in a terrible subplot in which a convict (Jonathan Banks) sends two killers (Genesis Rodriguez and rapper T.I., dropping every single one of his lines) on the trail of the thief. This thread is so slim that when all the major characters find themselves together in an elevator, Gordon cannot generate a whiff of excitement. Two other featured players, Robert Patrick and Eric Stonestreet, also figure into the mix, but handle their roles much better.

Thief wants to be Planes, Trains and Automobiles but ends up more like Due Date And McCarthy’s character is like Zach Galifianakis’ in the latter – annoying with no redemption, until the film decides she should be loved. Thief mimics the same “crazy nasty crazy nasty crazy nasty sentimental” rubric given to McCarthy’s Bridesmaids character. There is no identifiable way to bridge these gaps, but my guess is that Gordon assumed his audience would stop trying. The film’s lame stabs at humor also include making fun of the name “Sandy” as a male name, even though he is named for Sandy Koufax and Sandy is often a nickname for Alexander (or Sanford, in the case of Koufax).

Thief is a film I will guess that has been conceived by people who have never worked for very long in the real world. Each sequence further strains credibility. This is a film where Bateman’s Sandy earns $50,000 a year but can support a wife and two kids, with an additional one on the way. This is a film where a splinter corporation can form, employ workers, and find clients and office space overnight. The film could have said something about the economy – it shares same “the meek must inherit the earth” philosophy as The Dark Knight Rises – but offers no solutions. Corporate slaves get promotions out of nowhere. An expected climactic showdown with a boss guilty of gross corporate malfeasance (Jon Favreau, ludicrously third-billed although you miss him if you blink) never materializes.

Thief is also a very violent film. Every character seems to have access to a gun. A MAC truck plows into a parked car, totaling it and driving on. McCarthy’s character has no problem punching innocent men in the throat and kicking them south of the border. But don’t worry – she still gets the worst of it, including a sex scene in which only her head is scene and a chase scene in which a car broadsides her. No film that treats its lead like this much of a punching bag has any respect for him or her.

I never really bought the détente between the two Sandys. At no point have they have traded enough personal intel to like and trust each other, and that’s a major problem. Her character simply cannot become likable after being such an ass for so long. This is a woman who has knowingly and recklessly ruined lives. You can get away with such a transformation in the soaps, over time and with numerous plotlines to shepherd this shift, but not in a work that knows its final destination. And with neither exciting action sequences (though the stunt players are this film’ MVPs) nor hilarity to help, Thief barely elicits a grunt, let alone a guffaw.

McCarthy, luckily, has the last laugh. She’s terrific, piecing together Mazin’s jigsaw of a plot and shining in every scene, regardless of the bipolar temperament created by Gordon, only breaking a sweat when her character must beat a (repeated) hasty retreat. But there’s a different reason for the glow emanating from the skilled actress: it’s star quality.

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