Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Going After Bilbo

Well, THAT was fun.

Like most of the northeast, I was subject to the whims of mother nature as the blizzard affectionately known as "Nemo" tore through the area and was easily the heaviest snowstorm I've personally lived through. It was probably the biggest since the legendary storm of '78, a blizzard my parents have referred to in stories for nearly 35 years. Though I've seen my share of wonky winter weather, this was the first time (in my memory) that not only was the T (the local transit) shut down as a precaution, but remained offline ALL WEEKEND due to extensive cleanup. Yes, Hurricane Sandy also shut down the T when it rushed through last year, but service was back up and running the NEXT DAY, so it really wasn't a hindrance. Naturally, that means one simple thing: I sure as hell did not get out to the movie theater over the weekend.

Fortunately a little snow did nothing to change the fortunes of Identity Thief, directed by Horrible Bosses' Seth Gordon and starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy. With so few mature comedies in theaters right now (Bullet to the Head doesn't count), this was the right time for something offbeat and offensive to make itself known. It's also Melissa McCarthy's first major starring role, and her first big one since blowing (there's my storm pun, folks) everybody away with her Academy Award-nominated spot in Bridesmaids. If there's any comedic actor ready to break out on her own right now, it's McCarthy, and her presence is the main reason anybody should be giving this flick a shot.

Honestly, does that EVER work?
When financial expert Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Jason Bateman) is informed by his credit card company that he has gone over his limit, he is confused. After all, he knows for a fact that he never came close to his limit, as he's being fiscally responsible for his family. Then, when he is arrested by Colorado police and informed that he missed his court date in Florida - a state he's never even visited - the evidence becomes clear; Sandy's identity has been stolen by Diana (McCarthy), a Florida resident and professional con artist. With the authorities unable and unwilling to help, Sandy finds himself traveling to the southeast, where his only hope is to force Diana to confess to her crimes. But he's not the only one chasing her, as an assortment of people not only want the foul-mouthed thief for themselves, but buried six feet under as well.

Would you trust that face?
Despite a talented cast (Besides Bateman and McCarthy, there's also Amanda Peet, Jon Favreau, Genesis Rodriguez, Eric Stonestreet and Robert Patrick) and an intriguing premise, I couldn't quite get into Identity Thief, at least not for the first few acts. Most strained is the humor, which usually relies on two types: physical and sexual. While Horrible Bosses churned out at least one good laugh per scene, you can sit through most of this picture without even cracking a smile, frankly unacceptable for an R-rated comedy. The fault likely lies less with the director Gordon and more with screenwriter Craig Mazin, whose "best" work includes The Hangover Part 2, Superhero Movie and the last two Scary Movies. Each scene feels completely independent of the others, as if each one were a bad SNL skit featuring the same two performers. Instead of telling a cohesive story, we're subjected to gag after gag while the director waits for something to stick. It never does, and as a result the movie flounders very, VERY quickly.

McCarthy and Stonestreet in one of Identity Thief's few redeeming scenes.
But where the humor doesn't necessarily come through, there are some bits that make seeing Identity Thief almost worth it. Reason number one is McCarthy, who fully justifies her first leading role with a character that manages to defy the limitations of the script. While McCarthy manages to garner sympathy and understanding from the audience, she never goes so far as to justify her absolutely wrong actions. Striking that delicate balance is a true feat, and one we can expect to see from the actress in the future; while she excels at the physical humor and witty repartee, it's when she actually forces her character to break that mold and command a scene with pure acting skills that you can see how talented she really is. The rest of the cast are decent but unimaginative. Bateman plays his usual blend of snarky/professional, and while he's still a likable sort I'd love to see him break out and try something truly different. Meanwhile, Peet and Favreau are undeveloped, Rodriguez is stifled in a small role that doesn't take advantage of her talent, and Stonestreet - whose appearance signifies the film's first genuinely pleasant sequence - is sadly underutilized. Only Robert Patrick as a violent bounty hunter is remotely interesting, and he like the others appears both randomly and not enough to make a real impact. Besides, it's another case of Patrick playing to his type instead of against it.

No, no... just let her go.
Unfortunately, McCarthy and a solid final act cannot right a capsized ship, and that's the unfortunate truth of Identity Thief. Humor that doesn't work will still kill a comedy even if the players you bring in do the absolute best they can. The cast and crew do what they can, but for a good McCarthy flick we might have to wait until she teams up with Sandra Bullock in The Heat, which is just a few months away. Until then, Identity Thief is the #7 movie of the year, which wouldn't be such a bad spot if it wasn't behind Texas Chainsaw 3D. That's much lower than it should have been especially with the talent involved. This is a movie that steals whatever it can, most notably two hours of your time. Do yourselves a favor and wait for the DVD.

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