Everybody is happy for Melissa McCarthy. After years on TV shows (Gilmore Girls, Mike & Molly) and small parts in movies (she's great in John August's The Nines), she broke through with Bridesmaids, getting an Oscar nomination in the process. She's a really funny lady who's ridiculously effervescent, and it's high time her profile got raised. The only problem with McCarthy's breakthrough is that in Bridesmaids she was the shrill, obnoxious character—amusing but also really broad. In her first big role since that film, she's essentially playing another version of that character, to much less winning effect. Identity Thief is so bad that I hope it doesn't prematurely squash people's enthusiasm for her.
In the movie, Jason Bateman plays the usual Jason Bateman character, Sandy Patterson, a responsible, buttoned-down Denver businessman who doesn't get much respect from his boss (Jon Favreau) but is still hoping for a promotion to support his growing family. But when Sandy leaves the company for a better gig, his cushy new V.P. title is threatened because local police think he's another Sandy Patterson (McCarthy), a loud, brash woman (real name Diana) living in Florida who has racked up tons of credit-card debt and stolen his identity. Given a week to clear his name—this seems nonstandard—Sandy travels to Florida to confront this woman and convince her to go back to Colorado with him to explain the whole situation.
Identity Thief is the latest odd-couple-go-on-the-road-together comedy, and it will test your patience for two very likable performers made constantly unlikable by this film. Bateman does put-upon as well as anyone, so obviously he's put in endless situations where McCarthy is utterly jerky and rude. That's meant to set off comic sparks—watch out for those sparks!—but director Seth Gordon (King of Kong, Horrible Bosses) confuses screaming with comedy, which is even more annoying because of how obvious this movie's strategy is. You see, because Sandy is clearly such a good guy and Diana is clearly such a tacky, white-trash shopaholic, we're eventually going to learn that, really, Diana isn't such a bad person: She's just misunderstood. Which would be fine if she'd been a funny horrible person beforehand.
The movie isn't even clever enough to make its central conceit interesting. How is Diana so good at being an identity thief? Apparently, she calls people, pretends to be their credit card companies, and gets their social security numbers. That's about it. (For people who found the setup of Compliance ludicrous, good luck with this movie.) Identity Thief goes out of its way to suggest that she's a sociopath, but we don't really see it: She's mostly just Megan from Bridesmaids with worse makeup. And then when the film decides to try showing some heart and make Diana a little more human—which, I swear to god, involves a high-end fashion makeover—it doesn't make sense that Sandy would begin to sympathize with her because, again, she's supposedly a sociopath. The movie wants us to see her as a total nutjob until it decides, no wait, she's really very nice.
Identity Thief doesn't make much sense on any level. Sandy's new boss (who knows him really well) won't hire him back unless he meets Diana in person? We have to have not one but two different groups of gun-toting bad guys chasing after Diana? The movie even tries to work in some lame 99-percenter populism once Sandy begins to see the wisdom in screwing over certain kinds of people and stealing their identities. Everything feels thrown together with a desperate hope that, maybe just maybe, the more frantic and busy everything seems, the funnier it'll be.
While watching Identity Thief, I was thinking about just how hard it is to make a road movie in a time when most people fly everywhere. (Like with modern-day horror movies, which need to keep establishing that their characters are out of cellphone range, road movies often have to invent reasons why the characters must drive.) And with its dumb mixture of action, comedy and occasional sentimentality, Identity Thief made me think back to Due Date, another film with almost exactly the same setup. I suddenly realized that McCarthy is basically playing the Zach Galifianakis role: the overbearing dolt we're meant to find adorable deep down. Galifianakis was another comic who deserved his eventual mainstream breakthrough. But then he just kept playing variations of off-putting weirdos until it became his shtick. I don't want that to happen to McCarthy. (The trailer for her next film, The Heat, doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.) There are about 10 minutes in this movie where you get to see McCarthy's natural charisma and sweetness shine, and paired with Bateman's it's pretty enjoyable. But it disappears too quickly. What's the point of discovering new stars if Hollywood is going to stick them in the same old crap?
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.