It probably says something about the state of American cinema circa 2013, as well as the state of entertainment tech, that this attempt at timely farce, absurd in all the worst ways, ruled the February box office — in fact, in the worst February of all time for movie attendance, it was the only flick to turn a profit. And that’s perfectly understandable; in a world far more interested in the Oscar horse race between Argo and Lincoln and Les Miserables, there’s not much point in laying down ten to twelve bucks to see a stellar cast of perennially underrated b-listers get denied their shot at greatness once again. Identity Thief, which is ironically about pretending to be other people, is worthless as anything but celebrity schadenfreude.
It does represent truth in advertising, however. What’s ostensibly presented as a fugitive buddy comedy suffers from a crippling lack of consistency, not just in the jokes but in the film’s very tone. Jason Bateman, finally and tragically getting a breakout film role, finds himself on a wacky cross-country road trip in order to get Diana (Mike and Molly’s Melissa McCarthy), the sociopath who’s stolen his life, back to his hometown so she can clear his name. The cops refuse to get involved, see, even though she has a rap sheet longer and more confusing than Thief’s two hour runtime. Implausible? You know it. But director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) seems just as stranded and desperate as Bateman’s office drone.
It’s not that the jokes don’t stem naturally from character development or anything. This is, after all, a Hollywood comedy opening in February. There are just precious few jokes to work with; when Bateman’s allowed to improvise in a few scenes, not only is it immediately obvious, but the snark sounds like it’s falling right out of Michael Bluth’s mouth. It’s left to the minor characters to fill in the cracks with sheer professionalism: Robert Patrick, looking disturbingly old and less like liquid metal these days than any of us would care to admit, is genuinely menacing as the skiptracer hunting Diana down, and rapper T.I., making his comedy film debut, unveils a surprisingly unique and effective take on the deadpan in his turn as a drug lord also making Diana pay for her sins against capitalism. Too bad the plot reduces Patrick to a deus ex machina and banishes Mr. I to near tokenism. Even the Office Space corporate revenge fantasy, thrown in as a last-ditch attempt at cohesion, goes nowhere. The car chases are pretty exciting (if also wildly unlikely), the supporting cast is full of surprises, and McCarthy is stunningly adept at the tearjerking, considering the film slams her into it with all the subtlety of one of its multicar pileups. None of this lends itself to comedy, though, much less the slapstick kind needed for an exercise like this one. This is nothing if not a movie in search of itself.
Then there’s Molly, far more effective than she even needs to be; her transformation from sociopath to anti-heroine is so sudden it’s downright creepy. Turns out she’s an orphan trying to buy her way into happiness, but Gordon handles that reveal so clumsily it just feels like one more scam. Much of what happens in Thief, for that matter, is disposed of quickly, as if Seth realized that his stolen ideas, like Diana’s house full of capitalist booty, add up to nothing. They’re both left feeling hollow and without joy, and it’s unfortunately palpable for the audience; then, after quickly piling on the sentiment like it was fertilizing a lawn, the film forces McCarthy to descend into thuggery again for one truly bizarre last scene — apparently for no other reason than to go out on an attempted joke. It’s a perfectly imperfect finale, one that sums up everything that’s wrong with Identity Thief. And Hollywood. And February.