Long known for stealing scenes, Melissa McCarthy adds to her jacket by taking on the title role of Identity Thief. Seth Gordon's action-comedy follow-up to Horrible Bosses proves far from perfect but ultimately difficult to resist, thanks to McCarthy and co-lead Jason Bateman.
Bateman plays Sandy Bigelow Patterson, a Colorado accountant and family man whose life turns upside down when McCarthy's identity thief—let's call her "Diana"—goes to town on his credit and gets a warrant issued for his arrest. The ensuing confusion threatens Sandy's brand-new position as the vice president of a startup financial institution, and with police bound up in jurisdictional red tape, it's up to Sandy to clear his record and save his job in the one week allotted by his new boss (John Cho).
That means flying down to Florida, apprehending Diana, and hauling her back to face the music. Though his wife (Amanda Peet) warns, "You're not Batman," off he goes, to "pretty much the worst place in America," to stand up for his self. Naturally, Diana proves plenty slippery and exceedingly dangerous, and not just because of her go-to move of throat-punching anyone who tries to stop her. Car chases and crossfire are guaranteed by those hot on Diana's trail: a pair of drug dealers she's crossed (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I.) and a violently unhinged bounty hunter (Robert Patrick).
And so what begins as a seemingly fruitful comic premise about identity theft turns out to be two parts Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, one part Midnight Run (and transparently so) as Sandy and Diana are forced to share a punishing road trip on which they will inevitably bond. An expert of both verbal and physical comedy, McCarthy is a worthy successor to John Candy, who also had a gift for warming up caricatures with loveable humanity. With Identity Thief, she gets to play even more colors, from almost ferally self-protective to emotionally vulnerable, and she's well-matched by tried-and-true put-upon straight man Bateman.
But director Seth Gordon—who made his name with the sharp, entertaining doc The King of Kong—still doesn't feel quite at ease with telling a fictional narrative. Identity Thief feels bloated at 112 minutes, and curiously repetitive: more than once Gordon suggests a character has sustained a mortal injury, shifts into concerned slo-mo and serious music, then reveals everyone's fine, the large-scale version of a kind of fake-out the picture too-regularly pulls for a laugh.
More worryingly, Identity Thief evinces a moral (and morale) confusion by introducing Sandy as a guy willing to take a career risk to get the treatment and pay he deserves, and willing to travel cross-country to confront a felon, then suggesting that taking what's his is a lesson he needs to learn from Diana over the course of a movie road trip. Um, huh? Craig Mazin's script also endorses Sandy's Stockholm Syndrome in not only softening to Diana but himself stealing an identity (don't worry, folks: it's okay when you steal from a jerk).
Despite these pesky tangles, there's something appealing in how Identity Thief amounts to the opposite of a revenge narrative, considering the roots of Diana's waywardness and extending her measured generosity and chances to earn her redemption. Sure, making Diana cuddly after all is a Hollywood convention, but it also scores one for restorative justice.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]