In the highly competitive arena of Bad Movie Premises, “Identity Thief” should earn at least an honorable mention. It may even rank in the Top 10. Then again it probably will do so with an asterisk indicating that fans of the movie’s cast won’t care.
Since her Oscar-nominated performance in “Bridesmaids,” comedienne Melissa McCarthy can do no wrong. Or, to be accurate, what wrong she does is easily overlooked by those who enjoy her brand of living-large comedy.
And Jason Bateman has created his own following from, among other things, the TV show “Arrested Development” and box-office hit “Horrible Bosses” directed by, yes, the man behind “Identity Thief,” one Seth Gordon.
So this is a movie for those who couldn’t care less about a bad premise or, for that matter, misfired gags, false sentimentality and obtuse characters. These are all part of the “fun.”
The theft of personal data has become a huge crime problem in the computer age. Clearly though, this cast and crew mean to turn cyber crime into a laughing matter.
Well, this could be managed, I suppose, but on a road trip where criminal and victim travel together and must foil a bounty hunter, assassins and even police in an effort to get the victim’s good name back?
If you ever got your hands on the person who stole your identity, would you really want to go on a trip with that person? That’s what is meant by a wretched premise.
Right from the opening moments, the film, written by Craig Mazin (“The Hangover Part II”) from a story by Jerry Eeten and himself, seems to be on a dare: How willing is any audience to accept continual and utter imbecility even in a comedy?
All the Identify Theft Queen of Orlando, Florida whose name is Diana (McCarthy) has to do is call up Sandy the Idiot (Bateman) in Denver and, with a ruse his young daughters would see through, get him to disclose every vital fact about his life.
The guy deserves his victimhood. Alas, more stupid decisions are on the way.
If one has credit cards, checks or even an identity stolen, all one needs to do is call up the bank or credit card companies and the ripped-off merchants to report the fraud. (I speak from personal experience.)
No comedy there, however.
So instead of doing any of the obvious things, Sandy the Idiot decides to fly to Orlando, find and confront Diana and convince her to come back with him to Denver to explain to his employer (John Cho) that those charges she rang up aren’t his.
Did I mention that his employer, instead of being sympathetic about a crime that, unfortunately, is all too common, has given Sandy a week to clear his name or be fired? Is this movie a subtle attack on the intelligence of the people of Denver?
Meanwhile does any of this make any sense to you?
If so, you won’t mind the additions of a pair of hit men (Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris and Genesis Rodriguez) and a ruthless skip tracer (Robert Patrick) on the trail of Sandy and Diana for reasons barely if at all disclosed.
Or the fact that McCarthy must burst into tears every so often to explain how a rotten life has turned her into a con artist —and the script makes her play this for real.
Or the fact that in a pinch — only a pinch, mind you — Sandy is willing to commit identity theft himself in order to stay in a fine hotel and enjoy a good meal.
This is all an excuse, of course, for low-grade, even cruel gags, many involving McCarthy’s girth, and others involving Bateman’s nebbish character.
One “gag” involves a truck that flips over on the highway several times and McCarthy, who isn’t wearing a seat belt as far as I could tell, scrambling out afterwards with a small bruise on her face. She is also hit by a car and gets, oh, maybe a cut.
This takes the movies right back to the day of the Mack Sennett silent comedies where the unspoken law was no one ever got hurt. Such films, in the words of one of silent comedy’s greatest critics, Walter Kerr, “began as though comedy had never existed.”
Even though many of the great silent clowns worked for Sennett, his films are virtually unwatchable and certainly very unfunny to today’s eyes.
Sennett threw on the screen comedies so vulgar and primitive that, Kerr writes: “These comedies are pre-emotional … Indeed, they do their work at a level in the development of comedy that is earlier than the earliest rule-of-thumb known. It is the rule-of-thumb that comic figures — people who make you laugh — are automatically sympathetic.”
This comment applies to “Identity Thief.” No one gets hurt; emotions barely exist and those that do are entirely synthetic; and comic figures get no sympathy from an audience.
Universal’s production notes call Gordon “an entirely self-taught director.” This speaks all too tellingly to the advantages of a film school or at least a youth spent watching movies.
Unwittingly, Gordon is re-inventing the wheel, no doubt unaware he is taking screen comedy back to its most primitive manifestations. It’s hard to believe, in fact, that something like “Identify Thief” can exist on multiplex screens right next door to “Silver Linings Playbook.”
Opens: February 8, 2013 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Universal Pictures in association with Relativity Media presents a Bluegrass Films/Aggregate Films production
Cast: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Genesis Rodriguez, Morris Chestnut, John Cho, Robert Patrick, Eric Stonestreet, Jonathan Banks
Director: Seth Gordon
Screenwriter: Craig Mazin
Story by: Jerry Eeten, Craig Mazin
Producers: Scott Stuber, Jason Bateman, Pamela Abdy
Executive producers: Peter Morgan, Dan Kolsrud
Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production designer: Shepherd Frankel
Music: Christopher Lennertz
Costume designer: Carol Ramsey
Editor: Peter Teschner
R rating, 107 minutes