Identity Thief goes through a lot of trouble to tell a really silly story. The film depicts a world where in order to deal with identity theft, a victim must become a vigilante, traveling across the country in order to confront and retrieve the offender himself. There is always comedy to be mined from low-stakes criminality, but it usually only works when the stakes remain low. The film overblows the journey, turning into an epic road trip that has the character learning lessons in spite of the chaos. The film does generate a few laughs in spite of all this, but the final product is far from memorable.
Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) is a mild-mannered in-house accountant for a financial firm. After toiling for years, he finally gets a break when his co-workers offer him an executive position at a new firm they’re opening up. But there’s a hitch: his identity is stolen, and soon his name becomes associated with outlandish purchases and drug deals. Informed that clearing all this up could take a year, Sandy decides to travel to Florida to find the thief and bring him or her to justice. He manages to nab Diana (Melissa McCarthy), but now he has to drive her back to Denver, evading all sorts of misfits along the way.
Theirs is some merit to the idea of a victim of identity theft getting to know the thief. And in fact, when the film actually steers itself away from big comedic antics and tries to get to know its characters, there is surprising humor and dramatic depth to it. In its most lucid moments, the film poses an interesting question of identity in the modern age. When you can pretend to be anyone, who are you, really? The film’s most successful scene deals with this question in a rather affecting way.
But this question only exists in the sidelines. It doesn’t really fit within the comedic framework that the movie sets up, which has little to do with any issues pertinent to reality. The story undergoes great contrivances in order to get to the main action, constructing a gross vision of the world so full of incompetent people that the best option for dealing with identity theft is basically vigilante justice. And the film does all this just to end up at a rote comedic formula: the odd couple road movie. The movie even makes space for a couple of villainous chasers just to fit within that mold, largely to the detriment of the main narrative.
The film seems to treat its main story as a handicap more than anything else, afraid that the potential dramatics won’t appeal to a laugh-hungry audience. It’s just another case of Hollywood underestimating the viewer. It’s unfortunate, since the movie already hired actors capable of carrying that dramatic burden. Jason Bateman has perfected the pathos of the put-upon everyman, dealing with unimaginable crises with equal parts horror and resignation. And Melissa McCarthy is capable of much more than the big, wild, slapsticky comedic set pieces that she has become known for. In the few moments she’s give to stretch, she manages to give this film a touch of actual heart.
But heart is low on the list of priorities of Identity Thief, as it is in most Hollywood films these days. It prefers to stick to the broad marketable elements most easily conveyed in short trailers. And so Melissa McCarthy falls on her face after trying to swing on a chandelier. She punches people in the throat, and has a lengthy, noisy sex scene. The film is presumably trying to play on her strengths, but just as it underestimates the viewer, the film underestimates its star. The film is capable of being so much more than another take on Planes, Trains and Automobiles or Due Date. But no one really lets it happen.