‘Identity Thief’ Struggles With Its Own Identity

There’s a rich tradition of comic films where two disparate individuals are thrown together by circumstance and then outcast geographically, socially, legally — or any combination thereof. Some of these manifest themselves as road films; John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) is an example.

The recently released on DVD Identity Thief fits this genre. The story centers on Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), a trustworthy businessman and dedicated family man living in Denver. Patterson’s identity is stolen via phone fraud by Diana (Mellisa McCarthy), a con artist from Florida. With official investigations stymied by the intricacies of police jurisdictions, Patterson takes matters into his own hands by going to Florida to meet Diana, bring her back to Colorado and sort out the mess.

And what a mess it is.

Rather than providing a narrative through-line, the road trip construct in Identity Thief serves only as a loose framework on which to hang the subsequent collection of jokey set pieces. And unfortunately, none of the jokes are really all that funny. External complications in the form of a ruthless bounty hunter and a pair of mafia-like vengeance-seekers are additional seasonings thrown into a stew that just isn’t going to taste good no matter what’s put in it.

The characters are as uneven as the story. Although the exposition is dedicated to establishing the unshakable trustworthiness (Sandy) or relentless mendacity (Diana) of the central characters, those motivations shift where convenient to support the gag of the moment rather than the film as a whole.

Attempts to add depth to the characters through internal conflicts — Sandy’s vulnerability enhanced by his expected baby and recent job change, Diana’s compulsive defrauding traced to a lack of attachment in childhood — fall flat. Sandy’s shifting personality is difficult to follow, and Diana’s pathological lying is laid on so thickly that even when her character is meant to be telling the truth, it’s not very clear. It’s difficult to sympathize with such muddy characters.

That stands in sharp contrast to the aforementioned Planes, Trains and Automobiles. In that film, Neal Page (Steve Martin) simply wants to get home with as little hassle as possible; Del Griffith (John Candy) just wants a friend. Neal and Del are thrown together by circumstance, and while they do change over the course of the film, what we expect from each of them remains stable. Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles is simply a better script and a better story.

As Identity Thief clatters and bangs along, so many laws — both statutory and physical — are broken that the reality that exists within the framework of the film is difficult to grasp. Suspension of disbelief is pushed beyond its limits. For example, in the first reel, someone gets hit in the face with a guitar, with no resulting damage to person or instrument. It’s a minor detail, but in the course of the film, the physical gags get bigger and more ridiculous to the point Identity Thief starts to feel like a sweary, shorthanded Three Stooges or a lurid, live-action Looney Tunes. It raises the question whether Identity Thief may have been more successful as an animated feature film intended for an adult audience, à la South Park.

There are aspects of Identity Thief that do succeed, albeit on an industrial level. Specifically, the film is a decent résumé piece for its principals: Bateman, as the straight man, registers a level of annoyance at his predicament (or perhaps at the script, ahem) that further establishes his position as a Gen X Jack Lemmon; McCarthy flaunts her chops as a physical actor who is also capable of pulling off intensely emotional scenes. Playing a minor character, Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family) makes a scene-stealing appearance as a desperately over-the-top swinger wannabe. And much of the film shows off the U.S. state of Georgia’s versatility as a filming location.

Despite any success or failure on the part of the film, the home video edition of Identity Thief comprises quite a monument to the work. It contains both a DVD and a Blu-ray disc, plus a digital download and an Ultraviolet (cloud) copy. The discs feature an (unfunny) gag reel, a making-of featurette, another featurette about the actors’ interplay, alternate takes, and an unrated version of the film as well as the theatrical release. Sometimes it seems there is an inverse relationship between the achievement of a film and the degree to which it is commemorated in its home-video edition.

It must be said that the ambition and the idea behind Identity Thief are praiseworthy; the film takes a tried-and-true trope and attempts to rewrite it in light of something topical. But sadly, the final account contains insufficient funds.

RATING 2 / 10