It almost physically hurts me to give “Identity Thief,” the recent comedy starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy and directed by Seth Gordon, a poor review. It’s a movie that I had heavily anticipated, from the moment I saw the cardboard stand-up to the moment I entered the cinema giddily wondering exactly how many times I would pee myself from laughing. This is not only because I want to be best friends with the wonderfully energetic McCarthy (I do, mind you; Rex Reed had better watch out). But rather, the promise of the madcap break-out star of “Bridesmaids” juxtaposed with Bateman’s awkward straight-man schtick seemed like a perfect set up, no matter how the script or direction floundered. This seemed like it would be a comedy built to withstand any flaws it might harbor—a film that would be lovably unsinkable and generously absurd.
Unfortunately, that comedy did not come to fruition. As a result, “Identity Thief” is, it pains me to admit, really sort of bad.
Seth Gordon entered the scene with 2011’s “Horrible Bosses,” a film which, for all its flaws (and there were many), survived on the backs of its wonderful ensemble, which managed to elevate the senselessness of much of the comedy to a level of dark mischief that almost entirely drowned out the palpable meanness and drudgery of the script.
This is not the case with “Identity Thief.” Whereas the stars of “Horrible Bosses” proved adept at shedding the shackles of their production’s lackluster writing, Bateman and McCarthy are thoroughly mired by a screenplay in which the level of comedy alternates between bland cliché and mean-spirited mockery.
One of the best ways to examine this problem is in fact very closely tied to the controversy regarding the New York Observer’s review of the film, in which the wholly unlovable Rex Reed (Remember him from earlier? Well, fuck him again) chose to forego any actual criticism of the picture in favor of simply calling Melissa McCarthy fat approximately 10 times. As unforgivable as his review is (look it up: it’s pretty unforgivable), it’s oddly in tune with the voice of the picture itself, which seems to have included McCarthy solely for the purpose of reminding us how funny it is to fat-shame, because that’s really the extent of her character.
Need a joke? How about Melissa McCarthy eating something. Or maybe Melissa McCarthy having sex with someone while Jason Bateman wretches in the bathroom. Fat people, sexually attractive? Oh, Lord, you’re killing me. Over and over again, the script reduces her to a caricature, forgetting what an incredibly talented comedic asset she is (not to mention a beautiful woman worthy of respect). Rather than allowing McCarthy to own and propel the comedy as she did in “Bridesmaids” (which helped the film get around some of the less clever weight-centered humor inherent to her character there, as well), Gordon and company relegate her to a punchline. For the entire film, she is condemned to fulfill an outmoded, unfunny, incredibly offensive, and asinine stereotype.
As for Bateman, he kind of just shambles around while the film cracks fat jokes like a ten-year-old at a playground. He provides the requisite disgust and horror that the film seems intent on making its audience feel, forcing him completely out of his nice-guy mold and transforming him into some sort of avatar of condescension and discrimination.
Luckily, the film has some enjoyable moments; and yes, they are all due to McCarthy. Furthermore, they’re all the result of her zany energy and her willingness to own her character, even as she deserves so much better. Seeing her give it her all to redeem this film is almost painful, knowing how much less funny the sum is than the parts (or even just a single part).
Hopefully “Identity Thief” quickly fades from audiences’ memories (as it has begun to from mine). Hopefully audiences will recoil at the insulting implications of the film’s humor. Hopefully we can move away from weight as an issue of comedy. And hopefully McCarthy’s next film, “The Heat,” directed by Paul Feig of “Bridesmaids,” will be better.