Film Review: McCarthy Steals Show as Comic 'Thief'

Universal Pictures/Associated Press
Con artist Diana (Melissa McCarthy) and her mark Sandy (Justin Bateman) become fast friends on a cross-country road trip in "Identity Thief."

Universal Pictures/Associated Press Con artist Diana (Melissa McCarthy) and her mark Sandy (Justin Bateman) become fast friends on a cross-country road trip in "Identity Thief."

Unlimited funds have allowed Diana to live it up on the outskirts of Miami, where the queen of retail buys whatever strikes her fancy. There's ...

Rating: R for sexual content and language

Length: 111 minutes

Released: February 8, 2013 Nationwide

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Bateman, John Cho, Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet

Director: Seth Gordon

Writer: Craig Mazin, Jerry Eeten

More info and showtimes »

Universal Pictures/Associated Press
Con artist Diana (Melissa McCarthy) and her mark Sandy (Justin Bateman) become fast friends on a cross-country road trip in "Identity Thief."

Universal Pictures/Associated Press Con artist Diana (Melissa McCarthy) and her mark Sandy (Justin Bateman) become fast friends on a cross-country road trip in "Identity Thief."

In supporting roles in "Bridesmaids" and other comedies, Melissa McCarthy has been a ruthless and unapologetic scene-stealer. So it's appropriate that her first feature-film star vehicle, "Identity Thief," is about a professional pilferer.

I thought about writing that somebody must have stolen the script, too, but the problem with "Identity Thief" is not what's missing but what's there. The movie is overplotted, not underdeveloped. The film has too many characters, too much sentiment and too much time-wasting side material and phony-baloney "motivation," when the only thing it needed more of was smarts: What it needed was for director Seth Gordon to plant his camera on a tripod, get out of the way and let McCarthy do her thing.

Conceptually, at least, "Identity Thief" is an ideal vehicle for McCarthy. The title role plays to the actress' strength as an improviser, familiar to those who stay for the closing-credits outtakes on her films or who watch DVD deleted scenes. The story requires her to improvise outlandish falsehoods on the fly, which is apparently what McCarthy always has done on set.

The role also makes good use of McCarthy's larger-than-life persona and broad and robust presence on-screen (and I'm not referring only to her full-figured appearance, to use a marketing euphemism). In the tradition of such heavyset yet graceful physical comedians as Jackie Gleason, Oliver Hardy and Curly Howard, McCarthy is not just a skilled performer but sometimes a walking sight gag, and she enters "Identity Thief" in tacky wardrobe and makeup that generate instant smiles in the audience.

The cheesiness of the character design is appropriate for a con artist and hoarder who misappropriates people's identities so she can fill her home with useless consumer goods. (The movie suggests she's also trying to fill a hole in her heart; see what I mean by too much motivation?)

With a script credited to Craig Mazin ("The Hangover Part II") and Jerry Eeten (something called "Elvis Took a Bullet"), "Identity Thief" gets off to a slow and dull start as it introduces us to Sandy Patterson, played by Jason Bateman, again cast as an insecure underdog Everyman.

Sandy has a lovely, supportive wife (Amanda Peet, in a truly thankless role that requires her to do little more than talk into a phone a couple of times) and two young daughters (real-life sisters Mary-Charles and Maggie Elizabeth Jones, veterans of Craig Brewer's "Footloose.").

Sandy also has a jerk boss (Jon Favreau), who rewards himself with millions in undeserved bonuses. This callous executive might be a refugee from Gordon's previous film, "Horrible Bosses," which also was less than the sum of its funny parts.

Sandy works as an accountant in the "financial industry," where his honesty is unappreciated, and where he is played for a "chump"; in other words, he is exploited by the same economic system the McCarthy character exploits. Did "Identity Thief" start life as a commentary on greed and a response to class imbalance? Perhaps, but the movie that has arrived in theaters is such a compromised consumer object itself that — like the snake that bites Sandy's neck during a forest sequence — it lacks any real sting.

The film brings its lead characters together after Sandy learns his identity has been stolen by a thief whose spending spree and arrest record are threatening his financial and job security. Sandy decides to track the woman to Florida, despite the objections of his wife.

After Sandy apprehends and essentially citizen's-arrests Diana (the thief's real name, she claims), the movie becomes a zany cross-country road trip that, in another era or with different stars, might have evolved into a screwball romantic comedy. Instead, what develops here is a mutually inspiring "friendship," intruded upon by an uncouth skip tracer (the always reliable Robert Patrick), a couple of drug criminals (Genesis Rodriguez and the rapper T.I., whose characters are utterly redundant to the story) and a cowboy-hatted would-be Lothario named Big Chuck (Eric Stonestreet, whose sex scene with McCarthy reeks of comedic, audience-pandering desperation).

The trailer for "Identity Thief" promises a raucous good time, and the movie works well as long as McCarthy is roughhousing with Bateman, throwing out punches and one-liners. When she's not on-screen, however, Gordon robs the movie of its only saving grace; worse, sometimes he misuses his star.

At one point, Diana is on the verge of escape when she stops to answer Sandy's cell phone. The voices of Sandy's young daughters bring Diana to tears; plaintive piano music on the soundtrack attempts to do the same to the audience.

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