When studios screen comedies for critics, there is typically an audience there, no matter how far in advance the screening. The reason, of course, is that an audience responding to a comedy in a positive way has a kind of transformative power – laughing and having fun with your fellow moviegoers is something that you actively want to engage in. And it is a good barometer for whether or not the movie will be a success – when we saw “Ted” last summer, we weren’t too crazy about it, but the audience went ape shit. (This translated to one of the biggest R-rated comedies ever.) At a recent screening of “Identity Thief,” the new high-concept road movie from Universal, a packed audience responded politely but not enthusiastically. They did not hoot or holler or fall over themselves, and frankly, they seemed kind of bored. So were we. “Identity Thief” is such a lame, laugh-free, laboriously paced affair that not even people off the street who got a chance to see a movie early (and for free) could drum up much enthusiasm.
“Identity Thief” opens with our titular character Diana (Melissa McCarthy), a scammer in Florida who calls up unknowing putz Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Jason Bateman) in Colorado, tricking him into providing her with enough information to rip him off. (It’s never explained how she came across his name or decided on him as a target, but this is one of a number of galaxy-sized plot holes/conveniences that seemingly have no bearing on the actual plot.) From there, each character is established: Sandy is a hardworking, nominally paid accountant who works for a jerk (Jon Favreau, who provides the movie’s few genuine laughs), has two movie-adorable daughters (including the little girl from “We Bought a Zoo“) and a loving, supportive wife (Amanda Peet) who has no motivations or character traits that exist beyond being a loving, supportive wife. They are strapped for cash, with a new baby on the way, but things are looking up when a number of the employees (led by John Cho) from the firm where Sandy works, decide to set up their own business and take him with them — with a $200,000 pay raise to go with it. Things are looking up!
Except, of course, that there’s a fat woman in Florida who has stolen Sandy’s identity and is spending like crazy, buying all sorts of nonsense, including a jet ski and one of those massage chairs from Brookstone. Yes, apparently Brookstone stores still exist. In Florida. That’s about all the character nuance we get from her – she’s a large, loud, colorfully dressed buffoon who is also a criminal mastermind, with a neato credit card making machine that wouldn’t be out of place in one of those ’90s-era movies about computer hacking (like the one where Fisher Stevens rides around on a skateboard). This entire setup — scam artist targets honest man with new job, financial responsibilities, family and kids — takes an eternity to establish, and it’s all in service of a rather flimsy comedic concept. It’s a sign early on that becomes more pronounced later — that the the movie can never get out of the way of itself to have any fun.
Anyway, one day Sandy tries to pay for gas and his credit card is rejected. He goes into the gas station and the attendant cuts his card in half, but not before making fun of his girlish name. Because, you know, Sandy is a girl’s name. And if you think that’s hilarious, get ready, because this joke is repeated about fifteen times. After talking to an ineffectual police officer (played by the unreasonably handsome Morris Chestnut), Sandy realizes that the only way he can prosecute this woman and get his life back (which includes his new job – now on shaky ground after a background check informs his new boss of all of this woman’s criminal history), is if he goes to Florida and brings fake Sandy all the way back to Colorado to face some justice. There’s an unbearably long time spent unconvincingly explaining why the police can’t do anything, but presumably with all this preamble out of the way, it’s time to have some fun, right? Wrong.
Sandy hatches his plan and goes down to Florida, but how he’s paying for anything remains a mystery, since he seems to be living so close to the line and Diana’s antics have gotten him in so much trouble, but, again, it’s probably best not to linger on that thought. Anyway, he tracks her down, tries to confront her, but she ends up evading him (she knows how to pick handcuffs and is fond of Patrick Swayze-style throat-punching). The two are eventually forced into a kind of mutually beneficial partnership after they run afoul of a couple of gangsters (played by Genesis Rodriguez and rapper T.I.) who are out to kill Diana for selling them unusable copied credit cards… or something… Again: it’s not really clear, but really just creates two more people to chase Diana. But if that’s not enough, there’s a third tossed in the mix: Robert Patrick, who gets his second showy supporting role in as many months as a bounty hunter (this after his somewhat more enjoyable turn as an old school law man in “Gangster Squad“). And if this seems overstuffed, that’s because it is, with “Identity Thief” featuring an abundance of extraneous plotting that never gels with its single-note setup. (Oh yeah, there’s a ticking clock too — Sandy has one week to fix this situation or he loses his job).
Through a series of contrivances too eye-rolling and asinine to get into, Diana and Sandy have to essentially hitchhike across the country, and when this section of the movie hits, it acts like a blanket encasing and then smothering the life out of anything with even the most remote possibility of being funny or enjoyable. At nearly two hours,”Identity Thief” drags and sags, with tedious detours continually derailing the momentum, like a roadside encounter with a horny cowboy (Eric Stonestreet from “Modern Family“) and a snake attack so phony that it makes “Anaconda” look like a nature documentary. Even more insulting, and further weighing down the proceedings, is the fact that, as the movie inches along, it piles along the sentimentality, like having a bad meal will be tastier if you just keep adding copious amounts of sugar. Will Diana start to take responsibility for her actions? Will Sandy have what it takes to turn her in to the police? Does anyone care?
Seth Gordon, who made a classic documentary and one of the best sports movies in recent memory with his videogame chronicle “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” before moving on to painfully mediocre comedies like the summertime smash “Horrible Bosses,” listlessly directed “Identity Thief” like someone who literally had nothing better to do with his time. Every scene droops instead of bounces, but perhaps more crucially, “Identity Thief” is almost smug in its own excess, seeming to think that having Melissa McCarthy do her increasingly tired schtick and Jason Bateman frown is enough to carry a movie. The two actors are game, but unanchored, both by the script by Craig Mazin (“The Hangover Part II,” “Scary Movie 4” which says all you need to know) and by Gordon, who doesn’t so much direct the movie as just turn the camera on.
With long stretches (we’re talking 20-30 minutes) without a single guffaw, “Identity Thief” is aggressively dull, and will joylessly steal two hours of your life that you will never get back. [D]