Identity Thief's Creators Fear What Audiences Love About Melissa McCarthy
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 multinamed 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. McCarthy gets bashed about like a Stooge, and she bashes back with riotous abandon. 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. So let it be said, this one time only: Here is a comedy that really could use more intergender violence. (I'll leave it to you to parse the sexual politics of McCarthy's insult after Bateman beans her with a knickknack: "You throw like a fuckin' girl!")
More on the shambles in a bit. First, though, an appreciation for another fine moment, one of the half-dozen to hope that someone one day assembles into a YouTube Identity Thief supercut. 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 unwinded.
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. Briefly, these two stars are an actual comedy team, sharing the frame, the funny stuff building up from the energy between them. For 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 costumed just as she would be if she were played by a male comic in drag: 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. Her sexual appetite is presented as inherently funny — although McCarthy, with her inventive delivery, makes it legitimately funny, even with the goop obscuring that wonderfully communicative face that audiences are paying to see.
But her big comic set-piece sex scene, teased so wildly in the film's promotional campaign, is a miserable dud. Diana and her partner (a good ol' boy picked up at a motel bar) pretzel each other into what we're supposed to believe are increasingly complex positions, but Gordon refuses ever to show an inch of her below the chin — everything is in howling Les Mis-style close-ups. That choice is, by accident, one of the funniest things in the movie. The crew had to come up with shot after shot suggesting the specifics of these conjugations without ever once exposing us to what the lovers actually look like. What does it mean when Hollywood is more comfortable showing us a woman getting punched than that woman in bed? Meanwhile, Bateman's character is locked in a motel bathroom, griping about how grotesque he finds sex between people who aren't in the shape he is. Prim and perennially out of sorts, he's like a sizeist C-3PO.
From there, the movie collapses. There are car chases and plot twists and more uncomic 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. (She also is turning, like a wrestler, from a villainous "heel" to a good-hearted "face.") 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 means we actually want to see her.
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