See What Sticks, by Tyler Smith
I laughed a lot at Seth Gordon’s Identity Thief. It has a lot of the things that I look for in a comedy. It has distinct characters that are inherently funny. A solid premise from which comedy can naturally spring. A willingness to try anything for a laugh. Indeed, it is really my kind of comedy. Because, behind it all is a sincere commitment to what is happening. Even when the jokes don’t automatically work, or a specific scene is more disgusting than funny, I feel as though I should give the director and the actors credit; they are going to see it through to the end. With so much comedy unwilling to do more than the bare minimum, it’s refreshing to find one that genuinely wants to make you laugh, and will work hard to do it.
That the film occasionally gets off track or distracted from the main story is mostly forgivable. In comedies like this- in which characters find themselves pursued by people that want to do them harm- the filmmakers always run the risk of making the story too complex or emphasizing action just enough that it starts to swallow up the comedy. This does indeed happen in Identity Thief, as our protagonists wind up being chased by the mob, a bounty hunter, and the police. I’m willing to accept two of those. Any more than that, and the filmmakers had better be willing to engage in Blues Brothers-level madness, because they’re officially stretching the boundaries of believability. But, as I said, this is forgivable, because I see it as a byproduct of a “throw everything at the wall” approach to comedy. Excess can sometimes happen. As long as it doesn’t distract too much from the main story, characters, or the actual gags, I’m willing to overlook it.
And, indeed, the film wisely keeps its two main characters front and center. Jason Bateman plays a lowly accountant at a financial investment company in Denver who suddenly finds that his credit cards are being declined. He is informed that his identity has been stolen by a woman in Florida. The financial and legal trouble that this causes him could lose him a possible high paying job, so he travels to Florida to seek out the woman that screwed up his life. He meets a seemingly-pleasant, but tacky woman played by Melissa McCarthy. She attempts to evade him, but he eventually catches her and they start to make their way back to Denver to clear everything up.
There are a lot of concessions that we need to make to allow this story to make sense, but Bateman and McCarthy manage to sell the reality of the situation through their silly-yet-grounded performances. Bateman continues his streak of playing the long-suffering straight man whose barely-contained rage is apparent every time the people around him open their mouths. And yet he is likable and down-to-earth, as when we see him with his family and at his job. He feels like an everyman; he feels like us.
Melissa McCarthy has quickly become a force of nature in the comedy world. Between her television show Mike and Molly (which I admit I have not seen) and her Oscar-nominated performance in Bridesmaids, McCarthy’s public profile is skyrocketing, and it’s easy to see why. She possesses a quality that is pretty rare for actors, yet crucial for comedians. She is not at all self conscious. Whatever the character requires, she will do, and do it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She inhabits this character and plays every scene with the right amount of calculation, vulnerability, wackiness, and energy. Whether she is engaging in ridiculous sex with a would-be mark, rocking out to every single song on the radio, or getting smashed in the face with a guitar, Melissa McCarthy makes it all look so effortless, like a modern-day John Belushi.
While I would say that I mostly enjoyed the movie, I found myself being taken out of it on occasion. I recognize that comedies deal in stereotypes from time to time, but Identity Thief seems to go out of its way to do so for no good reason. Most of the action takes place in the South and almost every character we run across seems to be exaggerated in some way. There is the hillbilly bounty hunter who loves his van as if it were a family member, the junkyard owner with the ridiculous haircut and trashy clothes, and the bus station attendant whose life is pointless. But perhaps the most frustrating character is played by Eric Stonestreet, whose admirable commitment to silliness and personal degradation rivals McCarthy’s. Stonestreet plays a larger-than-life real estate mogul who is played for laughs at first, but is eventually allowed to be a real human being with real emotions. It’s sort of nice to see the filmmakers willing to give another character depth, if only for a moment. Then they go and screw it all up by bringing the character back for another scene in which he speaks disparagingly about homosexuals, foreigners, and blacks. Because, you see, the character is from the South, and is thus xenophobic, bigoted, and racist. And no matter how real he may have been a moment ago, he simply cannot be allowed to get away with having that goofy accent and big belt buckle.
I realize that I’m sort of harping on something that ultimately doesn’t matter that much. This is a comedy, after all. However, it is a comedy that, I think, has a pretty good heart at the center of it. And its message seems to be that we should try not to prejudge people, as Bateman does with McCarthy, because we never truly know who that person may be; there could be more to them than we think. This is a good message, but it would have had a bit more weight if the filmmakers themselves didn’t deal so freely in stereotypes.
Nonetheless, Identity Thief was still a pretty good time. As stated, I laughed a lot and came away with an admiration for the level of commitment of all involved.