It’s easy to admire Identity Thief’s narrative efficiency without respecting the results. Screenwriter Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 3 and 4, The Hangover Part II and III) devotes a bare line or two of dialogue to each aspect of his plot setup: Colorado finance-company flak Jason Bateman exchanges a couple of sentences with his boss (John Cho) to establish that Bateman is an efficient, dedicated worker. A short scene with his wife (Amanda Peet) reveals that they’re living on a shoestring budget, but holding out hope for the future. Fifteen seconds on the phone with Florida con artist Melissa McCarthy lets her steal his identity and start running up vast debts in his name; a panicked moment with an unhelpful detective (Morris Chestnut) makes it clear that interstate prosecution will take at least a year. Bateman lunges for an unlikely solution, getting Chestnut and Cho to agree that if Bateman fetches McCarthy from Florida himself and procures her willing confession within one week, he can clear his name before a life-changing business opportunity passes him by. Meanwhile, the film gets far more expansive and self-indulgent during a long sequence where the friendless, lonely, but irrepressible McCarthy exploits Bateman’s credit line by buying thousands of dollars’ worth of drinks for everyone at a local bar, then winds up cavorting on tables and leaping for chandeliers. Thus Identity Thief establishes its priorities: Expansive character business is front and center; actual character-building is in the margins, almost off the map.
That’s an understandable value system for a comedy, especially one that wants to rocket past the setup and straight into setpieces involving McCarthy picking up a local for headboard-banging, shrieking sex, or inventing a new, sympathy-garnering identity for every situation. And it’s clear that the plot is just a nominal frame for comic business straight out of Planes, Trains And Automobiles, right down to the tense cross-country trip between unwilling partners, the endless transportational setbacks, and the classic personality clash between a fat, loud, crass character and a skinny, prim, uptight one. Like Horrible Bosses, the previous feature from director Seth Gordon (who also helmed the stellar 2007 documentary The King Of Kong), Identity Thief is essentially a sloppy ’80s character comedy with a sleeker 2013 editing and scripting sensibility.
But for all the streamlining, Identity Thief rarely hits breakneck speed, thanks to its long, sometimes improvised scenes of mayhem. And the frame isn’t the only thing pared down to utilitarian basics: The tacked-on, Elmore Leonard-esque villains get short shrift too. As a grizzled, Nick Nolte-like skip-tracer chasing McCarthy, former Terminator Robert Patrick plays his role nearly straight-faced, and in the process, becomes one of the film’s funniest elements. But Genesis Rodriguez and rapper T.I., as a pair of murderous thugs set on McCarthy’s trail by Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks, spend so little time onscreen, they suggest an extraneous plot thread that couldn’t entirely be excised.
Still, while Identity Thief treats everything but the scenes between Bateman and McCarthy as negligible, the material it does value is reasonably satisfying. Bateman is familiar and comfortable in his turn as a put-upon, ineffectual straight man, and McCarthy is winning with her usual go-for-broke gameness as his brassy, big-haired foil. Identity Thief has her puking, pratfalling, and sport-fucking, but her role is still considerably less grotesque than her Bridesmaids part, and in the inevitable scene where she drops her guard, she’s strikingly vulnerable, with a conviction that proves she hasn’t lost her acting chops amid the car chases and slapstick of her current career.
There are two extremes to Identity Thief. On the hacky end, a mild gag about Bateman’s character’s “girly” name (“No, actually, Sandy is unisex!”) is mechanically repeated over and over, in the vain hope that it’ll become funny through repetition. On the more nuanced end, Bateman learns deception and confidence from McCarthy, then uses it to scam his hapless doppelgänger at another branch of his company by turning his own fears of failure and inadequacy into a sophisticated weapon. Identity Thief gains some strength from that variety of humor, and its fleetness leaves it plenty of time to try different things. The problem is that it gives that redundant name gag and that life-changing experience equal weight and roughly equal screen time. A comedy doesn’t necessarily need to develop its characters past caricatures, but a better balance between narrative and yuks tends to make the yuks stronger.