Buster Keaton once said that the first rule of comedy is to avoid making the comedian an object of pity. If that’s true, and Keaton did know something about making comedy, director Seth Gordon’s new movie, “Identity Thief” shatters this rule from the onset. The results aren’t pretty but more importantly they’re not very funny either. If you want sharp, witty comedy, this is not the droid you’re looking for.
Jason Bateman plays Sandy Patterson, a Colorado money manager in a buttoned-down firm whose primary social activity is fending off jokes about his girly name. Note to viewers: his father was a Sandy Koufax fan. Bullied by his boss and desperate to provide a better life for his pregnant wife and two kids, Sandy jumps at the chance to join a start-up firm under the command of his friend Daniel (John Cho). But just as his life is looking up, everything falls apart. An identity thief named Diana is operating in Florida. Played so far over the top by Melissa McCarthy that she overwhelms the film, Diana is loud, belligerent and self-indulgent with a backstory milked so hard for pathos it would have Keaton cringing. Diana picks out Sandy’s phone number at random and without so much as a question or qualm from this so-called financial pro, gets him to give her his name, date of birth and social security number. Disaster follows.
Using Sandy’s credit information, Diana goes on a spending spree that ends with a drinking binge in a bar full of anonymous booze buddies she desperately tries to befriend. Back in Colorado, Sandy finds himself a credit pariah, his financial reputation in ruins and his new job on the line. A Florida warrant has also been issued for his arrest and has been passed on to the Colorado police. And here is where not only a willing suspension of disbelief but a childlike credulity is helpful.
Despite the fact the Colorado police are helping those in Florida, despite the fact there is a photo of the identity thief and despite the fact that using GPS, the real Sandy knows where Diana will be at a certain time, authorities refuse to take any action. This forces Sandy to fly to Florida to try and convince Diana to return to Colorado and confess her crimes so he can get his job back.
What follows is an entirely predictable odd couple road trip. Bateman plays Sandy as a man incapable of anger or anxiety. Instead of confrontation, he tries to placate the criminal who has ruined his life. As Diana tells the sad story of her loveless childhood, Sandy decides to save her from the consequences of her own actions. Pursued by a bounty hunter, two drug cartel hitmen and the Florida police, all of whom want her scalp, Diana’s maudlin saga warms Sandy’s heart. No matter how many car crashes ensue in this tepid tale of redemption, no one ever really gets hurt.
And maybe that’s the trouble. For comedy to work, there should actually be something big at stake. Diana’s change-of-heart is never convincing and “Identity Thief” – like Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner – beep-beep across the landscape without raising any dust at all.
See you at the movies!