It must be very difficult to balance the demands of a road-trip comedy. You need two solid leads with a definite sense fo chemistry, but with enough conflict between them to keep things interesting. You need a compelling objective for at least one of the characters to strive towards. You need a tightly-constructed scenario which rules out any easy use of mass-transit. You need a cast of quirky supporting characters to give the movie a distinct flavour, and to occasionally do a bit of heavy-lifting if you decide to develop your leads.
Identity Thief seems to realise this, but it fumbles a bit in the execution. Too many plot points and characters feel too convenient, inserted to either pad out the movie’s runtime or to construct a reasonably believable set of statistics to force the plot into motion. Identity Thief almost seems to try too hard to justify itself and to meet those requirements of a road movie. It’s best when it focuses on the two lead characters, even if it does overplay its hand slightly. It’s not a bad little comedy, but it’s not an especially strong one either. There are a few light chuckles, bu the film mostly runs on the charm of its two leading characters.
Identity Thief takes a while to get going. The first act hopes between the two lead characters. We meet straight-laced accountant Sandy Patterson, who works hard for the man and gets continually screwed – feeling almost like the same character Bateman played in the much stronger Horrible Bosses. In contrast, we meet the con-woman who steals Sandy’s identity and runs wild with his money. We hop between these two stories, and there’s a very strange tonal dichotomy established.
Sandy’s story isn’t really that funny. Barring a brief scene with a delightfully rude Jon Favreau, which plays like a tamer version of Bateman’s scenes in Horrible Bosses, the movie seems dedicated to demonstrating just how decent Sandy Patterson actually is. Which, to be fair, is grand. However, Patterson isn’t just a nice guy – he’s relatively boring. These scenes are intended to create a sense of empathy for Patterson as a character, so we feel his (righteous) anger and indignation when his identity is stolen and exploited. It’s just too conventional (hard-working put-upon guy trying to do right by his family) to sustain the attention given to it.
On the other hand, the scenes featuring the eponymous criminal are actually more fascinating. They aren’t necessarily especially funny, but the movie does an excellent job evoking sympathy and compassion for a character who could easily be obnoxious or offensive. Ironically, the movie does eventually establish a tragic origin story for the crook, in a moment that does feel a bit too manipulative or saccharine. Instead, the opening act does an excellent job of making us pity this woman who is clearly incredibly lonely and obsessed with materialism.
When we visit her house, we discover a jet ski parked in her driveway, and an entire kitchen support stacked with blenders. Melissa McCarthy actually does a decent job turning the “odd one” in this buddy road trip movie into a compelling character, and it’s a shame that the last act of the movie undoes a lot of her hard work by making an especially shameless tug at our heart-strings. It’s unnecessary, and it feels like Identity Thief is trying to hedge its bets a bit – it doesn’t quite trust McCarthy enough that it will rely solely on her performance to win the audience over, so it over-eggs the pudding.
And that’s really the biggest problem with Identity Thief. It’s a road movie, but it seems to be trying too hard to conform to expectations of a road movie. We get a cast of quirky supporting actors who are drafted in because this film apparently needed a bunch of quirky characters. However, none of these characters are quite distinctive enough to measure up to the weird ensemble players of the past few years. Robert Patrick’s dogged bounty hunter and Genesis Rodriguez’s hired gun suffer in comparison to “Muthaf$%er Jones” or Ioan Gruffudd’s “wetwork specialist.” They don’t linger in the memory.
To be fair, that’s not a fatal flaw. There are quite a few iconic comedies with bit players who don’t necessarily stick in the head. The problem is that Identity Thief relies on its quirky cast so heavily – and devotes so much time to them – that it feels almost like obligation rather than interest. Eric Stonestreet appears at two different points in the movie, playing the came character – but the second scene builds off attributes that weren’t even hinted at in his first appearance. It seems like the script just had the character around and thought it would be nice to put him in another scene, even if it didn’t really gel with what came before.
There are long stretches of Identity Thief where you really would rather spend more time with McCarthy and Bateman. Bateman isn’t given a lot to work with, but the actor’s charm still manages to shine through. McCarthy does her best with a heavy-handed script. She comes across a lot better with smaller momentary gags than with broad sweeping comedy. “More is not more,” one side character quips at one point, and that’s a motto that the film would have done well to take on board.
Identity Thief, like Horrible Bosses, seems to have a finger on the economic pulse. It plays off these notions of class divide, exaggerated and stressed by the recent financial crisis. In one of the movie’s best gags, and one the movie doesn’t stress too heavily, Patterson’s boss tries to explain why he deserves more money when the company is tightening his belt. He volunteers to lend Patterson The Fountainhead so that he might understand – a wonderfully out-of-touch moment that Jon Favreau delivers well.
The problem, however, is that Identity Thief tries to have its cake and eat it, too. It plays out something of a revenge fantasy in the last act, affording its lead a chance to strike back at the people who have exploited him. It’s a moment that feels especially hypocritical – given how the situation resolves itself. To be fair, Horrible Bosses faced the same problem. It was, after all, a movie that asked us to root for our leads plotting the murder of their employers. However, Horrible Bosses was more deftly constructed, balancing quite finely and taking refuge in absurdity.
In contrast, Identity Thief actually tries to emotionally ground its final third. This creates problems when actions don’t really have consequences, and when one of the lead characters gleefully participates in a crime that earlier had wounded him deeply. It feels like a bit of a misstep, as if the film hadn’t really thought through the implications of that plot point. It was too busy trying to construct a viable third act climax to worry about the thematic underpinnings.
Which does bring us to another of the film’s weakness. It feels contrived. Of course, these sorts of movies have to be contrived. You could end the pitch meeting for Due Date or Planes, Trains and Automobiles by asking why the characters don’t simply wait for the next direct flight. In order to get this narrative moving, writers need to construct a convincing set of circumstances to justify placing our characters on a round-about trip ripe with the potential for comedic gold.
“It doesn’t work that way,” a cop explains to Patterson when Patterson suggests a course of action that could cut the film’s runtime substantially. There are any number of encounters that feel unnecessary or awkward. Patterson is arrested when his impersonator skips bail. You would assume, given she was arrested, that the APB would include her gender and mugshot. However, that would deny the film a bit of fun, so it is glossed over. Similarly, when the same cop arrives at his work, a quick nod or acknowledgement to Patterson’s boss would make the situation less awkward – but that’s not to the movie’s advantage.
To be entirely fair, the film seems to realise that there’s only so far you can stretch these misunderstandings. The cop does eventually explain the situation to Patterson’s boss. The cops do eventually pull the fugitive’s mugshot. In a way, these concessions make the film’s logical flaws even more apparent – why weren’t they done earlier? The answer, of course, is “because the script says so.” Sadly, that’s not a convincing explanation.
Still, there are moments of weird comedy here that work surprisingly well. Eric Stonestreet’s first appearance might not be a comedy sequence for the ages, but it’s a point where the movie just goes for broke and I’d argue that it pays off. It’s not subtle or nuanced, but it does feel like the film is just cutting loose a bit – that it’s not merely doing the scene to tick off an item on the great “road movie” checklist. McCarthy and Bateman do have a nice chemistry that works well when their scenes aren’t over-written.
Identity Thief isn’t anywhere near as good as the movies that it namedrops on its posters. It is occasionally diverting, but it most survives on the charm of its two lead actors, while the film unwisely tries to diffuse focus away from them. Ironically, the movie winds up without a real identity of its own.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Amanda Peet, Bateman, Horrible Bosses, identity theft, Identity Thief, jason bateman, jon favreau, Melissa McCarthy, Patterson, Recreation, Robert Patrick, Sandy, Seth Gordon, United States