I won’t lie. I walked into the pre-screening of Identity Thief expecting to laugh, but more for the one-note, raunchy, slapstick comedy we’ve been seeing lately in films like this, that is, of the Seth Gordon, Judd Apatow breed. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Melissa McCarthy, who broke-out in last year’s Bridesmaids, is hilarious from beginning to end, and Jason Bateman, is the perfect foil to McCarthy’s crass, obnoxious character. But the film, in which McCarthy stars as a woman who adopts a variety of identities – Diana/Sandy/Tanya (the list goes on) — also manages to match that comedy with a believable and heart-warming poignancy.
The film opens with orange-haired, turquoise-loving Diana shopping (endlessly) for everything from hair spray to jet skis. Diana is a seasoned identity thief, and her latest victim, Bateman’s Sandy Patterson, has unwittingly forked over his personal information (social security number, date of birth). She creates fake ID’s and false credit cards, all under Sandy’s name.
When Sandy’s straight-edged, boring life begins to fall apart as a result of Diana’s crime (he’s arrested, has his credit cards cut up, and almost loses his job), he learns that a woman “of hobbit height” in Florida is to blame. The police are unable to help him due to matters of jurisdiction, so Sandy is forced to take matters into his own hands, leaving his pregnant wife and two daughters at home to find and bring this woman 2,000 miles back to Denver to clear his name.
Sandy is not the only victim who is hunting down Diana, however. Sandy is joined by a bounty hunter and a couple working for their mob-like boss, who have all been spurned by Diana and are now seeking vengeance. Sandy gets her first, corralling the crook into his car and setting out on a long road trip back to Colorado. In between, cameo appearances from Ellie Kemper (Bridesmaids), as a diner waitress, and Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), as a newly-widowed cowboy who sleeps with Diana, keep the laughs going.
The comedy, though, is not limited to the talent Gordon and company have assembled for the film. Special effects scenes, including a hilarious moment in the woods involving snakes, keep the film interesting and the humor varied. And stunts, like McCarthy being hit by a car or Bateman being punched – repeatedly, in the throat – are both realistic and hysterical.
As these things go, Patterson and Diana’s road trip ends up forming a special bond between the two characters. We learn that Diana was an orphan and doesn’t know her real name; she has no real friends or family. Her character, initially portrayed as ignorant, tasteless and oblivious to those around her, suddenly reveals itself as vulnerable and sensitive. A dramatic and (embarrassingly, for me) emotional makeover sheds light on Diana’s real character, and McCarthy’s talent shines through during a heart-wrenching scene when she explains her past to Patterson.
Identity Thief has it all: guns, laughs, romance, chase scenes, scandal. But unlike other comedies in the genre, it manages to break out of the same routine plot. And thanks to McCarthy and Bateman, who are both hilarious and marvelous, the film manages to delve into themes of appearance, friendship and belonging, albeit in hysterical fashion.