Identity Thief is basically a string of contrivances, which makes it not all that different from most big-studio comedies these days. The story arc traces all the way back to the screwball comedies of the 1930s (at least): there’s a staid, somewhat uptight guy (it’s almost always a guy) who’s forced to spend time at close quarters with a more irresponsible, sometimes felonious free spirit. By the end of the movie, the guy has started to loosen up, while the free spirit has, at some key moment, done the decent thing despite having to bear its consequences, and is a better-adjusted member of society. It’s Bringing Up Baby, it’s What’s Up, Doc?, it’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles, it’s Due Date, and it’s every buddy-cop movie you’ve ever seen from 48 Hrs to Lethal Weapon.
The main (which is to say only) contribution of Identity Thief to the genre is that the free spirit isn’t just a woman, but one who doesn’t look like Zooey Deschanel. Identity Thief doesn’t dare to be too transgressive–the movie makes it clear from the very start that this won’t be a romance, giving the staid hero (Jason Bateman) not just two adorable daughters, but a beautiful, pregnant wife (Amanda Peet)–but the fact that Melissa McCarthy is playing what once would have been “the Eddie Murphy part” is an advance of sorts. (Not, of course, to the professionally hateful Rex Reed, who probably should have had the crap beaten out of him 30 years ago, and is now too decrepit to be touched.)
Identity Thief has the kind of easy-to-digest plot concept that can be, and has been, readily conveyed in a 30-second commercial. McCarthy’s Diana is a con woman who gets innocents to give her their Social Security numbers and other personal information so she can obtain (or manufacture) credit cards and IDs in their name and then buy whatever she wants, ruining her victims’ credit in the process and sticking them with the bills. In this case, she takes on the identity of Sandy Patterson (Bateman), just as he’s about to start a new job, and since Diana has also managed to get herself arrested for assault, Sandy finds himself in trouble with the police for good measure. Since the movie needs Sandy and Diana to get together, it sets things up so the only way he can clear his name is to physically travel from Denver to Florida and bring her back for a confession to his new boss with the police listening in. And since the movie needs them to remain together for an extended time, they can only make their way back to Denver in a rental car, allowing for adventures (that rental car certainly isn’t making it to Denver intact) and reluctant bonding along the way.
The movie, which has a script credited to Craig Mazin (he’s worked in the past on Scary Movie and Hangover sequels) is a rickety, predictable vehicle, and it’s not directed by Seth Gordon (of Horrible Bosses) with any originality or flair, but like its central pair, it ultimately gets where it’s trying to go. That’s almost entirely due to Bateman and especially McCarthy. He mostly plays on variations of his trademark outraged exasperation move, and gets plenty of mileage out of it, but he’s smart enough (he’s also one of the film’s producers) to understand that this is McCarthy’s show, and to hang back a step in support. She the one who gives Identity Thief what genuine emotion it has. As much as McCarthy is all-in on outsized (no pun intended) physical comedy set-pieces (particularly a strenuous hotel sex scene with a road acquaintance played by Eric Stonestreet), she’s particularly great at registering Diana’s occasional flickers of vulnerability and doubt. Since the movie has no subtlety at all, this pays off in a blunt tear-jerking scene near the end where Diana’s backstory is all too explicitly set out for us, but McCarthy plays it with honesty, and as shameless as the last section of the movie is, it works.
There’s not much else to be said in favor of Identity Thief. It uses wizened plot gimmicks like an evil boss for Sandy (played by Jon Favreau) who seems to have wandered in from Gordon’s last movie to be a perfect target for Sandy’s new-found street smarts, as well as ethnic gangsters (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I.) and a crazy bounty hunter (Robert Patrick) on Diana’s trail, just to keep things moving–albeit in the dumbest ways possible, Gordon lets his actors do their jobs, but that’s about all he brings to the table.
Identity Thief is a routine, obvious piece of work, and it has very little of the joy that this kind of road movie can express at its best. In McCarthy and Bateman, though, it has a deft pair of performances at its center, and that makes up for a lot.