Leads Impress In Seriously Silly "Identity Thief"

For fans of Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development”) and Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”), “Identity Thief” is the perfect mid-winter pick-me-up. These early months of the calendar year are typically a dumping ground for Hollywood’s most unloved and unwanted projects, and while that’s an apt metaphor for the film’s lead character, the picture is anything but. And its release date makes it seem like that much more of a Godsend. Amidst the cavalcade of mediocre-to-awful movies we’ve endured so far this year, “Identity Thief” is the first to find any kind of spark. At its best – and admittedly, it is a bit erratic at times – it’s as funny as anything its leads have been involved with. It’s also director Seth Gordon’s best film since his brilliant debut, “The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters.”

We open on an unassuming accountant, Sandy Patterson (Bateman), who gets an unexpected mid-day call from a fraud specialist. Without thinking twice, he provides the specialist – who sounds decidedly convincing – with all of his personal information. The caller is, of course, the titular identity thief, Diana (McCarthy), and she’s soon living it up in her native Winter Park, Florida, buying drinks for an entire bar’s worth of strangers. When her rowdiness gets the best of her and she fails a breathalyzer test in the most spectacular way possible, it’s obvious to the audience that the real Sandy Patterson has a major problem on his hands.

Sandy, however, thinks nothing of Diana’s mugshot. He sees this short, stocky female with a 50s hairdo and questionable wardrobe as a mere detour in his journey to bigger and better things. He’s in the process of switching jobs, and his newfound rap sheet – being perpetrated thousands of miles away – is causing some problems with his new boss (John Cho) and potential clients. In a well-intentioned move to get away from his former, distinctly prickly boss (a brief cameo by Jon Favreau), Sandy has found all new problems and is forced to fix them immediately or risk being fired. Upon convincing his wife (Amanda Peet) and kids that he can bring the thief back to Colorado, thus avoiding rolls of bureaucratic red tape, Sandy hops a plane to what he calls “the worst place in America” – Florida.

Yes, this is all a bit convoluted, but make no mistake – “Identity Thief” is a committed riff on the tried-and-true “road movie” genre. Its joys aren’t in the set-up or even the execution, but in the charisma between its leads and its surprising amount of heart and compassion. In a world of increasingly mean-spirited comedy, Diana’s arc here is refreshing. McCarthy fully commits to the requisite amount physical comedy while sharing the screenplay’s downpour of four-letter words and absurd non-sequiturs with a very game Jason Bateman. While on the run from a pair of criminals (played by rapper T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez) and an unstable bounty hunter (Robert Patrick, in an obvious but welcome evocation of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”), the leads end up in an uproarious game of unnecessary role-playing that hits its comedic peak in a hotel lobby.

Director Seth Gordon struck out with 2008’s “Four Christmases” but fared better with 2011’s “Horrible Bosses.” “Identity Thief” avoids the unfunniness of the former while circumventing the unsteadiness of the latter’s third act, signifying a director that’s still learning and growing into his craft. Craig Mazin’s screenplay is deft enough to make you forget that he wrote “Scary Movie 3” and “Scary Movie 4.”

The picture sputters when its leads aren’t onscreen – the subplot featuring T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez is feeble – but such downtime is infrequent enough that momentum is never entirely lost. Additionally, the film would have been better off at 90 minutes instead of 110, but the scenes that are the most inessential to the plot provide some of the biggest laughs (see: Diana apologizing to Sandy’s wife). The “gross-out-with-heart” comedy model may have been brought to the spotlight by Judd Apatow, but other filmmakers are starting to beat him at his own game. “Identity Thief” is a much more lucid moviegoing experience than the recent “This Is 40,” and it’s every bit as funny. Even if you’re not a fan of McCarthy and Bateman, there’s likely something you’ll enjoy here.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: February 8, 2013
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Seth Gordon
Screenwriter: Craig Mazin
Starring: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Genesis Rodriguez, Morris Chestnut, John Cho, Robert Patrick, Eric Stonestreet
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content and language)