Just a week or so after the Pentagon reversed its ban on allowing female soldiers into combat, here's another breakthrough, of a sort: The funniest scenes in the confused and shaggy comedy Identity Thief are of Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman beating the hell out of each other. McCarthy — playing a multi-named serial liar and credit-card fraud artist we'll call Diana — clocks man after man with a vicious neck punch. Brought down by such a jab, Bateman — as Sandy Patterson, the actor's usual sane fellow whose life is infested with plot-driving crazies — goes all in, clocking her, tackling her, even braining her with the stolen bric-a-brac that clutters Diana's home.
I'm not going to argue that this man hitting this woman for laughs is some kind of a progressive triumph. But it is at the very least a victory for whatever is the opposite of sexism. Sadly, there's only about three minutes of this in a movie that is otherwise as much of a shambles as the home these brawlers crash through.
Directed by Seth Gordon. Written by Steve Conrad. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet, Tip "T.I." Harris, Genesis Rodriguez, and Robert Patrick.
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More on the shambles in a bit. First, though, an appreciation for another fine moment. Early on, Bateman's Sandy teams up with McCarthy's Diana to escape the angry gangsters whose appearance was guaranteed the moment the producers realized this was a buddy comedy. Because director Seth Gordon can't maintain a mood for long, the leads pull over, exit the car, and squabble on the highway shoulder, despite being pursued by killers with guns. Squat Diana, who is at this point in the story Bateman's hostage, decides to bolt, and McCarthy musters up a hopeless comic sprint, one clearly taking all Diana has in her. Lean Bateman pursues with the lightest of jogs and catches her, wholly un-winded.
Here the joke is not simply on McCarthy's body, which too often in Identity Thief is held up as ludicrous or offensive. Instead, this one time, the joke is in how she contrasts her body with Bateman's, in the honest but exaggerated frisson generated when her sloppy exertion meets his prim ease. But most of the rest of the film, they're solo acts, each doing what audiences expect of them: She yells and exhibits an unsocialized horniness; he regards her with dismay and disgust.
Yes, disgust. There's no way around it: The producers of Identity Thief seem to find McCarthy's real-world body loathsome, despite the fact that so many of America's moviegoers are built like her. For much of the film, Diana is slathered in garish makeup, swathed in hideous patterned blouses, hair teased out like mid-'80s Edie McClurg's might have been if she had ever auditioned for Stryper.
From there, the movie collapses. There's car chases and plot twists and more un-comic movie violence than there should be. Worse is the penance McCarthy pays for getting to roughhouse in the opening reels: Diana is given both a sad-clown backstory and a princess makeover. All this con artist wants, we learn, is to be loved — to have an identity of her own that matters. Late in the film, after treating herself to a new dress and upscale spa treatment, Diana is at last allowed to be as beautiful as Melissa McCarthy. Bateman's Sandy marvels at her, like he can't quite believe how appealing McCarthy's face and presence actually are. In this he is exactly like the producers, who are smart enough to know that millions of Americans want to see her in movies, but too dumb to realize that that means we actually want to see her.