So you’re watching Diana (Melissa McCarthy), the titular and exceptionally annoying criminal in Identity Thief. It’s early in her story, just as she’s been tracked down by her victim, Sandy (Jason Bateman), and so you’re glimpsing how she’s used his credit, to fill up her cramped Winter Park, Florida home with multiple blenders, toasters, and assorted electronics, not to mention cases of beverages and makeup: her eye shadow alone looks to weigh a few pounds.
All of which makes Diana’s encounter with Sandy—who arrives with handcuffs and hopes to bring her back to Denver, where her spending spree has destroyed his credit, legal record, and financial services job—a matter of sorting through stuff: they throw appliances and guitars at one another until they’re interrupted by the arrival of another party with an interest in Diana’s thievery.
That party, named Julian and played by T.I., comes equipped with a gun and a partner, Marisol (Genesis Rodriguez), as well as a slick suit and cruel smirk. His entrance marks something like a change in the movie, from antic, if unpleasantly physical, comedy, to spastic violence and—not to put too fine a point on it—abject stupidity. Julian and Marisol are hired killers, their employer an imprisoned gangster (a seemingly wisely uncredited Jonathan Banks), who directs them to execute Diana and whoever happens to be with her.
At first, this plot turn might appear to amplify the stakes for Diana and Sandy, to make their ensuing road trip to Colorado that much more urgent and speedy and anxious, you know, because they know someone is coming after them with weapons. But it doesn’t. Instead, the insertion of Julian and Marisol into Sandy and Diana’s plot serves a more specific and more insidious purpose, that is, to make her pathology—- which is plain to see and also articulated in case you miss what’s in front of you—less menacing.
It’s an old narrative trick, of course, to smooth the edges of an outlaw or otherwise distasteful character by setting her against someone who’s worse, more repellent, more villainous. And so, Julian and Marisol are offered up as the bad bad guys, slick, arrogant, and—again, not to put too fine a point on it—racially stereotypical. In pursuit of info on their prey’s whereabouts, the killers pose as homebuyers in Georgia, whereupon they’re informed by the realtor, Big Chuck (Eric Stonestreet), that they’re not actually welcome in his community, which expressly excludes foreigners, homosexuals, and blacks. “What that means?” asks Marisol, for whom English is a second language (she pronounces LoJack as LoYack). No surprise, Julian’s next move is to slam Big Chuck’s head into his desk (while also extracting the info he wants), in a move that’s both welcome (he punishes the smug racist) and unnerving (he embodies a reason for Big Chuck’s fear).
While the scene is brief and mostly irrelevant to Diana and Sandy’s story, it serves its key purpose, to reframe Diana’s bad behavior so that she’s redeemable. It’s a strategy repeated elsewhere in the film, because you can never get enough reframing for a large white lady prone to compulsive lying, belting Kelis’ “Milkshake,” projectile vomiting, and punching nice white guys in the throat. Still, it’s a strategy that wears thin after about a minute, which means you have 110 more to endure. That would be 110 minutes featuring a car chase, a snake up the pants leg, a mall makeover, and more than one assault by a rednecky skip-tracer (Robert Patrick).
Diana does not go easily, of course, and so Sandy’s nice-guyness plays a key role in her eventual teary confession: she’s been in foster homes, she’s insecure, she wants what Sandy has. “You’re breaking the rules,” he laments, “Society can’t function without values.” That would be the “society” that doesn’t reward his own hard cubicle-work or his super-supportive wife’s (Amanda Peet) hard homemaking work or their joint awesome parenting of a pair of awesome little girls (Mary-Charles Jones and Maggie Elizabeth Jones). That would also be the “society” that does reward Big Chuck’s racism or the profiteering practiced by Sandy’s odious Ayn Rand fan of a boss (Jon Favreau), that allows Julian’s employer to function effectively by phone from prison, and also provides all kinds of apparently easy ways for Diana to steal identities and go to spas and drink herself sick in bars featuring neon and chandeliers (thus illustrating someone’s casual observation that Winter Park is “hell on earth”).
But for all this evidence that Diana’s worldview is correct, that breaking rules is in fact the rule, Identity Thief is, at base, a most conventional film, determined to suck Diana back inside a traditional values sort of context. And in this it’s like all those other supposedly transgressive comedies, like Bridesmaids (its most obvious immediate antecedent) or Horrible Bosses (also directed by Seth Gordon) or the many, many bad-behavior/gross-out movies starring Seth Rogen or Paul Rudd. No matter the pretense of defiance or rebellion, the moral is always the same: follow the rules.