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‘Identity Thief’ Review: McCarthy Steals the Formulaic Show

With the rather simple title like Identity Thief, this movie can only be about so many things. If you guessed identity theft, you’re correct. Insurance agent Sandy Patterson, played by Jason Bateman, foolishly gives vital information regarding his identity to a woman over the phone. Don’t ask why an adult – let alone an insurance agent – would reveal such information to a stranger so nonchalantly (I can’t figure it out either). He slowly puts two and two together and discovers that a woman who lives thousands of miles away stole his identity. Sandy tells a local police officer, but apparently he can’t do anything. Sandy then sets out to find this identity thief, played by Melissa McCarthy, and bring her to justice. As one can assume from the story and, obviously the title, Identity Thief sees its primary characters embarking on a road trip that's less than desired by either of them. But someone has to pay if we want to laugh, right? After all dying is easy, but comedy is hard. While that statement is at least partially debateable, making someone laugh isn't always easy. Comedy, at its core, is all about catharsis; it always has been. Instead of wallowing in misery over the pain, we laugh as a way to grieve. Identity Thief focuses less on catharsis than it does on outrageous antics and happenings (including a tryst with an unrecognizable and hysterical Eric Stonestreet). One might imagine Bateman serves as the butt of the film’s jokes as Sandy, but the “humor” at his expense most often arises regarding his name, “a girl’s name,” in a running joke that isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. Instead, it’s McCarthy as the title character, who goes by Diana for a sizeable portion of the film, who gets the most laughs, stealing the show in the process. More importantly, she gets the tones of her character down the right way. Trailers and television spots for the film suggest that McCarthy plays an identity thief who’s simply loud and obnoxious. It’s never a shock when promos betray the truth of the product they promote, but it’s a slight surprise that a loud, R-rated comedy like Identity Thief handles its most outlandish character with such care and sympathy – or at least tries to do as much. McCarthy's character is not someone who naturally annoys others but rathers a front to hide her multiple insecurities. It’s up to the actress to bring this character to life since the script often showcases her struggles a bit too obviously. But McCarthy, who’s such a comedic pro all around (especially when you’re talking about her Oscar-nominated turn in 2001’s Bridesmaids) succeeds, not succumbing to the trappings of what would have been an eye roll-inducing portrayal in the hands of a lesser talent. Even though Identity Thief mostly centers on Patterson, it’s all about McCarthy. To be fair, Bateman gets his fair share of laughs, too. McCarthy might steal the spotlight from him, but he elicits the perfect amount of surprise and laughter as he plays straight man to McCarthy’s funny man, so to speak.  But the movie around the actors isn’t always quite up to their level. Identity Thief often manipulates laughs and character traits instead of bringing them out of the story naturally. For instance, “Sandy” buys drinks for strangers at a bar shortly after stealing the real Sandy’s identity. When drunken antics land her in trouble with the bartender, she argues that she’s just having fun with her friends. “People like you don’t have friends,” he says. Seriously. It’s an on-the-nose handling of a particular character trait to say the least. This kind of treatment takes away from Identity Thief when it’s so clearly meant to give it credence. It does the film or its characters no real service, and it isn’t the only time such clearly manipulative techniques make their way into the framework of the film. There’s even a stuck-in-the-woods scene. McCarthy, though, handles the clichéd attempts at developing the character like a pro and actually develops the character through her own efforts that avoid histrionics. Likewise, Bateman could go off the rails and into hysterics, but he plays it cool as he so often does. The actors build a nice rapport with one another that avoids the obviousness of the script around them. Still, the subplots involving the people chasing McCarthy bog the film down more often than they lift it up. Even with great work from McCarthy and Bateman – but mostly the former – Identity Thief often loses itself in its smaller stories and attempts at development instead of finding itself in them. 


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