When a movie as painful to endure as “Identity Thief” comes along, it’s tempting, as a critic, to seek vengeance against the filmmakers by exploding with hyperbole. I would undoubtedly feel a bit better about having been cinematically tortured for two hours if I could unload an outraged “This film epitomizes everything that’s wrong with contemporary Hollywood!” or a spiteful “Moviegoers should be offended by the film’s abhorrent depiction of X and Y!” right now. But no matter how cathartic it may be to frame a film’s failure within a larger cultural context, rarely is it actually appropriate. Most of the time, filmmakers fail in a less spectacular way: they try something and it doesn’t work. In “Identity Thief,” jokes are delivered and they don’t warrant laughter. That, not anything grander, is the primary reason why the film is a colossal chore to sit through.
Many critics have voiced qualms about the film’s outrageously unrealistic premise, in which average guy Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Jason Bateman) is forced to become a civilian marshal by delivering the Florida woman who stole his identity (Melissa McCarthy) to his local Denver police in order to clear his poor credit record, but this actually couldn’t be more of a non-issue. Where were the complaints about the lack of realism in the similarly real-world-based “The Hangover,” for instance? There weren’t any, because people laughed—thereby finding truth in the humor, rather than the premise—so they didn’t see the need to scrutinize the film on such grounds.
But “Identity Thief” contains little-to-no comedy that gets at the human condition. The film’s problem is not that its central scenario could never happen, it’s that Sandy and identity thief Diana don’t behave in recognizably human ways within such extraordinary circumstances. Sandy’s schtick amounts to “You’re coming with me” without any kind of creative plan to make his target actually do so, while Diana’s is acting like as much of an obnoxious, stereotypical oaf as possible. The main reasons we find humor funny are because a) we see something of ourselves in it or b) the content is so outrageous it appeals to our imagination. “Identity Thief” offers none of the former—these characters are so devoid of humanity, they might as well be robots—and its attempts at the latter are so conventional and safe that they could hardly be called outrageous at all.
I am as big a fan of stars Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy as the next guy; how can you not be if you’ve seen their past work (especially her Oscar-nominated turn in “Bridesmaids”)? But the duo do nothing here to demonstrate their talents, feeding the script’s caricatures rather than creating comic nuance to improve the subpar material. Certainly, “Identity Thief” was dead-on-arrival, what with its complete lack of social relevance (writer Craig Mazin situates it as a recession-era tale only to provide the illusion that he understands today’s audiences) and fixation on the unfunnily piggish actions of McCarthy’s character. But the actors could have worked to make the movie tolerable with an improvised character quirk here and a perceptive facial reaction there. Instead, they simply walk through the story—albeit loudly and aggressively—for a paycheck.
As ineffective as the comedy in “Identity Thief” is, it doesn’t hold a candle to the film’s third-act attempts at pathos in terms of misguidedness. Writer Mazin and director Seth Gordon unveil a backstory for McCarthy’s Diana that’s intended to psychologically rationalize her identity thievery and elicit viewer sympathy for her. But all it elicits in practice is nausea, especially when coupled with the film’s cloyingly rosy conclusion. Not only is this character transformation intolerably sentimental, it reveals that Mazin and Gordon possess no commitment to their comedic ideas; they care so little about their portrayal of Diana as a gross individual that they’re willing to swap it out for a radically different one in order to deliver a conventional “happy ending.” When the filmmakers themselves aren’t invested their movie, how are we supposed to be?