Identity Thief (2013)

Adam Clarke accuses buddy comedy of noise pollution. Film at 11.

Denver accountant Sandy (Jason Bateman) nearly loses his job when the police bust him. Trouble is, all the charges originate from Florida, which Sandy’s never set foot in. He’s just another victim of a woman who stole his name and social security number. She’s Diane (Melissa McCarthy), an expert identity thief.

Since there’s too much red tape to bring McCarthy to justice by conventional means, Sandy heads to Florida to lure Diane back to Denver and get her to confess her ill deeds.

Mayhem ensues!

You know a film won’t be terribly good when the most interesting thing about it is that decrepit critic Rex Reed took potshots at Melissa McCarthy’s waistline. I’ve come to expect catty, ball-less jokes from Reed, so I wasn’t too surprised. Or at least I wasn’t as soon as I collected myself from the shock of discovering that Reed is still, mostly, alive.

Forgetting the grade school-level insults from a sub-Gene Shalit dinosaur like Reed, Identity Thief just isn’t very good. It should be good. Melissa McCarthy ought to be a star and her performance rises above the material. Jason Bateman is a capable co-star, though I am sick him playing every role as Michael Bluth (you even did that in Paul, Bateman, and that was a million years ago). Seth Gordon directed The King Of Kong, so he knows how to make a compelling movie. Finally, the last premise of the film could make a solid comedy.

What happened? A lot of Identity Thief‘s problems have to do with the inflated budget.

The reason we’re seeing more and more of these loud comedies–which manage to produce an exciting trailer and little else–is because there’s too much money spent. If producers are shilling out a hefty budget, they want that movie to be big. With Identity Thief‘s estimated cost of $35 million, we have a simple story loaded with elaborate car chases and padded with familiar faces (Jon Favreau, Robert Patrick, John Cho) who’re given nothing to do but get paid. I mean, I’m glad the T-1000 got a decent craft services meal, but why get him at all for a nothing part?

In my review of Mama, I griped about modern horror films consisting of nothing but LOUD NOISES. For Hollywood horror films, it’s the “age of (SKRREEEE) sound effects (KLONG) getting in the (BLARMP) way of atmosphere”. For Hollywood comedies, the problem is that every joke is as loud and broad as possible. There’s no room for little things like wit, clever dialogue or even a lousy idea or two. All this movie finds funny/interesting are car chases and people getting punched in the throat. It’s draining to sit through nearly two hours of it.

Silliness and broad strokes can be hilarious. One need look no further than This Is Spinal Tap, Sleeper or Pee-wee’s Big Adventure for proof of that. Those films knew that you can’t have jokes at the same level all the time. Everyone remembers speakers that go to 11, Woody Allen as Mr. Butlertron and Pee-wee’s bicycle face-plant. But those films also have quiet little jokes and changes in tone to keep things varied and interesting. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure wouldn’t be what it is without the sudden claymation horror of Large Marge. Same with Sleeper‘s notes about the health benefits of hot fudge and tobacco and Spinal Tap‘s on-camera interviews. Those aforementioned scenes from these films form funny connective tissue around the bigger laughs in each.

Identity Thief‘s got nothing like this. It’s loud all the time and is basically like a bad sitcom. Bateman is a petulant hot house flower in nearly every scene (save one). McCarthy is crass and annoying in nearly every scene (save one). There’s no characterization; only a checklist of tedious, empty zaniness. It just seems like a set up for next week’s wacky adventure.

Why is it such a mess? Surely the talent involved…

Waitaminute! Screenwriter Craig Mazin wrote/co-wrote Scary Movie sequels, the Wayans-Spade vehicle Senseless and is currently writing Hangover 3: Season Of The Witch. This is a guy who specializes in broad laughs and zero nuance. So much for that mystery… still, do people like these movies or are they just an excuse to get out of the rain?

It’s not entirely Mazin’s fault, to be fair. I wouldn’t be surprised if Identity Thief was written uncredited by a team of “punch up” artists. Punch ups are a process in which writers/comedians load a dead screenplay with jokes. A process since immortalized by Patton Oswalt on his album, “Werewolves and Lollipops”. The reason comedies are subjected to this, this perfect example of too many cooks spoiling a broth, is because films are given too much money in Hollywood.

Identity Thief‘s not a terrible movie. It’s far from the worst movie I’ve seen in the past few weeks. I only wish it hadn’t confused jokes, story and character development with throat punching, gunshot wounds and car crashes. It may have an original premise, but this Melissa McCarthy vehicle has all the freshness of the Cannonball Run sequel it practically is. The only oversize aspect of the film Rex Reed or anyone else should be mocking is the film’s budget.