With their releases coming less than two months apart, the double-whammy of bad road trips represented in the under-performing The Guilt Trip and now the hard-to-watch Identity Thief may reduce the appeal of cross-country driving trips by a measurable amount. With Melissa McCarthy (no relation!) playing a one-woman demolition team who, for 95 percent of the running time, is a genuine affront to nature, there are unavoidably some laughs here, although the gifted comic actor got more of them in less screen time in her previous films than she does in this starring role. Her following is so deservedly loyal that Universal should expect a robust opening weekend, but the gas tank will likely run dry fairly soon.
There may be some hidden Hollywood moral behind the display of bad behavior in the screenplay by Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 3 and 4, The Hangover II and III), advancing the notion that average people will accept all manner of abuse from stronger, more assertive people (i.e., executives, producers) as long as you throw them a crumb at the end of the day. On the other hand, there may be no intent here other than to show what a truly amoral, anti-social person is capable of.
The premise is one with which anyone can sympathize, of being the victim of scam artists who, with little difficulty, get a hold of your credit card numbers and vital data and go on a massive buying spree before you can stop it. The poor schnook here is, ironically enough, a Denver-based mid-level financial services guy, Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Jason Bateman), who, after having been insultingly ordered by his boss (Jon Favreau) to send huge bonus checks to top company executives, agrees to join other mutinying workers in starting a new company. But the gig is imperiled when he’s arrested for running up huge tabs in Winter Park, Florida, being behind on credit card payments and in all ways having become a no-account.
That someone’s hijacked his name and financial wherewithal is easily established. But when a cop (Morris Chestnut) tells him it might take as long as a year to get the mess straightened out, the script feels like it’s piling on, just as it does when his new employer tells him he’s got just a week to go down to Florida and deal with it, or else his job’s history. Far-fetched may be the applicable term, or perhaps preposterous isn’t a stretch.
So bidding adieu to his beautiful, supportive wife (Amanda Peet) and two young daughters, Sandy flies to Florida, where he has no problem tracking down the pretend Sandy, otherwise known as Diana (McCarthy), who in turn has no trouble clocking the mild-mannered real Sandy with a punch to the throat. Sassy, impudent, full of herself and backlogged with reasons why she’s always right and others are wrong, Diana is nevertheless maneuvered into joining Sandy on a car trip to Denver, agreeing to make things good with his new company as long as she doesn’t have to speak to the police.
Sandy is a reasonable guy, a perfect, if dubious, straight man whose worry is losing sight of Diana, especially at night, when she could run off. Little does he know he’s got unsavory company when it comes to having been ripped off by Diana; an imprisoned gangster has engaged two assassins (Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, Genesis Roidriguez) to rub her out, while a violent skiptracer (Robert Patrick) also takes to the road to reel her in.
Diana is one of those grown-up problem children anyone may encounter somewhere along the way, but only if you’re very, very unlucky. A brazen liar, an unrepentant bully, a woman who thanks Sandy when he calls her diabolical, Diana is so repellent by nature that you wish that, somewhere along the road, Anton Chigurh would show up and give her the business.
No question that the least appetizing interlude has Diana, at a bar in Georgia, start drinking and getting randy with a gent fittingly named Big Chuck (Eric Stonestreet) and eventually propose that they go back to the motel with Sandy because he likes to watch. The result isn’t pretty and is far less funny than it’s meant to be under the direction of Seth Gordon, whose Four Christmases proved equally laborious in charting unpleasant journeys.
When it seems that the ends justify the means, Sandy momentarily lowers himself to Diana’s moral standards, which yields the inadvertent dividend of her finally pouring out the truth about herself. The monster is thus sentimentalized, not let off the hook, exactly, but given at least a partial pardon.
McCarthy has dominated in everything she’s ever been in and it’s true in spades here, as she’s up against no other substantial comic performers; it’s just that Diana requires her to be so assaultive that she becomes too, too much. Bateman does his job as the continuously put-upon straight man, but he can only react to the hurricane from the South. Everyone else delivers what’s required in one-dimensional support.
Cutting about 15 minutes down to just a bit over 90 minutes wouldn’t have hurt at all.