Hollywood produces a lot of terrible comedies — and make no mistake, Identity Thief is a terrible comedy — but seldom are we privileged enough to have two so unmistakably gifted and brilliant comedians guide as through these less-than-ideal viewing experiences. Jason Bateman is this generation’s best straight man, and the guy delivers wiseacre so exceptionally that his roster of terrible movies are never held against him. If someone is going to accept millions of dollars to make a bad movie, let it be Bateman, who can at least disguise bad writing with hilarious reaction shots.
Meanwhile, Melissa McCarthy is extraordinary. It may be that I’m feeling particularly sympathetic toward McCarthy in light of thas assbag Rex Reed’s review of Identity Thief — where he called her “obnoxious,” “obese,” and a “tractor-sized” “hippo” — but she has to be one of the best ad-libbers in comedy. No matter how bad the role — and hers, as a woman who steals the identity of Jason Bateman’s character, Sandy Patterson, is bad — McCarthy goes all in. The woman doesn’t have a shred of shame, and that’s too her credit: There’s probably six hours of footage sitting on a cutting room floor of McCarthy just talking filthy (if you’ve seen the end credits sequence with McCarthy from This is 40, you know exactly what I’m talking about). It’s hard not to get wrapped up in her enthusiasm, and it’s almost enough — at times — to make you forget you’re watching a miserable comedy that hugs the road-trip formula so tightly, it could probably squeeze blood from its zits.
The high-concept hook here is that an abrasive, cocksure and obnoxious Florida woman — who cons people out of their social security numbers, steals their identities, and racks up huge debts — has cost mild-mannered accountant type, Sandy Patterson (Bateman), his job. Through the magic of bad screenwriting, the only way Patterson can recover his job and identity is to fly to Florida, apprehend this woman, and drive her back to Colorado to settle up with local law enforcement.
What Identity Thief really is, however, is a road-trip comedy similar in theory to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Sandy’s a straight-laced guy who just wants to get back to his family, he’s trapped with an irritating and overly chatty woman whom he doesn’t like, they have no money, and they lose their means of transportation several time throughout the film (often because they are being chased by either a bounty hunter or a couple of Florida gangsters who want McCarthy’s character dead).
Superficially, it’s all fairly generic: There are pit stops in hotels, car accidents, a night in the forest with a snake, a squeamishly hilarious sex scene between McCarthy and a kinky Texan played by Eric Stonestreet, and several bonding moments that ultimately turn Sandy and McCarthy’s character into friends. To be sure, there are 10-15 funny moments in the film, and three or four hilariously uproariously sequences, but Identity Thief never gains much traction. There’s no momentum to the jokes; it moves with fits and starts, depending upon Bateman and McCarthy’s ability to ad lib in a given situation.
Granted, they do make a fun comedy team — there’s plenty of amiable chemistry between Bateman and McCarthy — and McCarthy even breathes a few authentic moments into the contrived, studio-manufactured shell. Ultimately, however, Identity Thief doesn’t amount to much besides what it is: A bad movie punctuated by an occasional laugh. But if you have to watch a bad movie — and you don’t, really — Bateman and McCarthy at least make it Identity Thief a tolerable one.