From John Candy and Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles to Zach Galifianakis and Robert Downey Jr. in Due Date to virtually every film starring David Spade and Chris Farley, the comic spectacle of an uptight (usually skinny) man forced to make his way across country or spend time with a free-spirited (usually overweight) sidekick is nothing new. There are different variations of this theme—John Candy’s character was a sentimental doofus; more often, the sidekick is all raging, uninhibited id—but one thing has remained the same: The sidekick has been a man. Until now.
In Identify Thief, the loud, obnoxious cohort is played by Melissa McCarthy, and I’m literally not quite sure if this cause for celebration or dismay.
Where is it written that the embodiment of the human id can’t be a woman? Where is it written that there can’t be jokes about her girth, her insatiable appetites, her physical repulsiveness? I admit I felt a little put-off when Jason Bateman’s Sandy, an account executive who has the been the victim of identity theft at the hands of McCarthy’s Diana, shuddered at the thought of any physical contact with her. But that’s how it always goes: Our hero moves from revulsion to a kind of grudging admiration and affection—and even learns to loosen up along the way. What’s more, Melissa McCarthy’s character isn’t totally desexualized: There’s a scene where she has a rather robust tryst with a stranger as—yes—Bateman’s Sandy squirms in horror in an adjacent bathroom. In the end, Identify Thief didn’t offend me as a woman—but it did offend me as a critic, cause it’s simply not that good.
Beware of a road film that has to jump through elaborate hoops to get its characters on the road together. It’s a sign that the whole endeavor is a bit forced. Sandy, apparently, is the only one who can bring Diana to justice (the cops explain they can only arrest Diana if she’s already in their jurisdiction; but what about a private investigator, the FBI, or perhaps a particularly thuggish friend?). Then, the filmmakers feel compelled to up the stakes further by adding two sets of bounty hunters also on Diana’s trial—the first, a pair of slick mob henchmen played by Genesis Rodriguez and the rapper T.I.; the other, a grizzled debt collector played by Robert Patrick. Ugh, I thought as the film trundled on interminably, we still have to clean up ALL those loose ends? (Identity Thief clocks in at a comedy-killing 111 minutes.)
Since her breakthrough performance in Bridesmaids, the studios have been gunning to make gross-out queen McCarthy a star—later this year, she has a similarly-themed film where her uptight sidekick is played by none other than Sandra Bullock. (Viva la progess?). I do think McCarthy is funny—a scene where Diana flips from one radio station to the next, providing a little impromptu karaoke jam session with each new tune, made me giggle. And she actually has some acting chops, too—she plays a credible con artist and even survives the inevitable bathos of the film’s final act.
But so far, I’ve liked her best as a side dish, not the main course. In Identity Thief, Jason Bateman is stuck in a car too long with her—and after a while, it feels like we are, too.