Identity Thief (15)


Dir: Seth Gordon

With: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Jon Favreau

Runtime: 111 minutes

TO the various schools of comedy – slapstick, silent, gross-out, whimsical, romantic, surreal and the rest – this page hereby pulls the golden cord and not so proudly draws back the tiny velvet curtain on the annexe named, "Had to be there".

Whenever one comes across a comedy that is too long and too baggy, that is a "had to be there" comedy. If a cast gives off the smug air of enjoying themselves first and only thinking of the audience later, that is a HTBT comedy. If the director has seemingly lost the ability to yell "cut" on a scene long past being amusing ... You get the idea.

The Guilt Trip, Here Comes the Boom, The Watch, almost anything made recently by Adam Sandler (with the exception, funnily enough, of Funny People), all fit into the HTBT category. As does Seth Gordon's Identity Thief.

With a story featuring an odd couple's trip across America, Identity Thief will only remind you of John Hughes's fondly remembered Planes, Trains and Automobiles in as much as various modes of transport are used. Where the 1987 comedy starring John Candy and Steve Martin was sweet, funny, swift and gently moving, Gordon's picture is snarky and overlong. This is not so much a Planes, Trains and Automobiles trip as a slow boat to China, followed by ScotRail on a bad day, followed by a bike with a flat tyre, expedition.

Yet in the moments when it settles down, when the picture's stars, Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, ratchet down their performances and act like halfway recognisable people, one has a glimpse of the comedy winner this could have been if self-indulgence had not been the soup of the day, every day.

Bateman (Arrested Development, The Change-Up) plays Sandy Patterson, a middle management number cruncher who answers the phone one day to a woman purporting to be from a credit card company. Told his card has been stolen, Patterson hands over all sorts of personal information. As it turns out, the concerned caller is an identity thief. Bet you didn't see that coming.

Diana (played by Melissa McCarthy of Bridesmaids fame) has done this sort of thing before, and is very good at it. The fastest way of stopping her playing havoc with any more of his life, Patterson is advised, is to bring her in himself. Hence the road trip.

It is a creaky start, and matters fail to become smoother from there. The real Sandy Patterson has to travel from Denver to Florida to find and confront the fake Sandy Patterson, and persuade her to come back with him. As he does so, it emerges he is not the only one hoping to have a word or two with the high-spending, drinks-all-round Diana.

The drill with any road movie is that besides going on a physical journey, the characters go from "point A" to "point X" as people. In short, they should develop from the stereotypical, cardboard-cut out types we first meet (and usually dislike) and become rounded, more interesting fellows. Identity Thief takes a very long time to reach that happy land, and it is a troubled, one step forward, two steps back transformation, with the screenplay by Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 3 and 4, Hangover 2) keeping the audience on its toes longer than is wise.

In the meantime, the viewer is exposed to plenty of HTBT comedy. Separately, Bateman and McCarthy are fine comic actors. He need bow to no other when it comes to playing an Everyman at the end of his tether with modern life. In Arrested Development and Juno he was smart, funny, quick and likeable.

McCarthy's big screen break came in Bridesmaids, where her character's scatty, access all areas riffs were part of the fun. But she had a script by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo as a guide, and she was part of a large ensemble cast, all of whom wanted their chance to shine too. In Identity Thief, McCarthy's speeches become rambles going nowhere. There are funny lines here and there, but it takes a lot of patience to stick around till they emerge.

Put McCarthy and Bateman together and the result should have been a comedy dream team. What Identity Thief shows, however, is that without a sharp script and a director exercising enough discipline, all that talent veers off the road. What is left, on too many occasions, is snideness and crudity. Mean comedy can be fun, but not in doses as large as Identity Thief dispenses.

By the time Identity Thief does get its show on the road the viewer is likely to be bored or exhausted by yet another comedy that thinks it is trying hard to be engaging, yet in reality is shutting audiences out. No-one likes to think they are on the outside of a joke looking in, but that is how this picture rolls.