I am not a screenwriter, though I aspire to be one. Ideas for films ruminate in my head, but to mold it cohesively is the difference between it becoming a script and merely fodder for something larger. One can say that Identity Thief is a film, though I would argue that it’s more of an idea. A singular idea – one that is exhausted within twenty minutes yet expanded upon for nearly two hours. It makes no attempt to introduce larger thematic components or even aspire for anything but the broadest and most mind-numbing jabs at comedy. There’s mean-spiritedness to much of Identity Thief’s rote comic attempts, though it is when screenwriter Craig Mazin introduces flaccid scenes of redemption and false sentimentality that the picture begins to border on offensive. Identity Thief exemplifies the worst in comic screenwriting – lazy, dumb, and most offensively, dull.
The premise has been marketed beautifully by Universal Studios – a woman (Melissa McCarthy) steals the identity of a vanilla pen pusher (Jason Bateman). The template deployed here is simple: the two characters are polar opposites, wherein redemption only occurs when they learn from each other. But never has a film so clearly laid out its stakes so apathetically. Identity Thief is an unmotivated sloth of a film, moving from scene to scene in a weary comatose state. Melissa McCarthy provides the picture with some measure of manic energy, but the ugliness of her character is unendurable. It’s only made worse by eye-rolling attempts at redemption as Mazin attempts to reconcile the distastefulness of McCarthy’s character with forced stretches of sentimentality. Jason Bateman is an actor of considerable range but as in his work in Seth Gordon’s 2011 film, Horrible Bosses, the material is too limited and generic to ever make anything out of it.
The problem with Identity Thief is two-pronged. Craig Mazin’s scripts an idea rather than anything of thematic worth, and does so in a lazy and plodding way. With credits that include various Scary Movie sequels and The Hangover II, it’s not much of a surprise. Additionally, Seth Gordon’s direction remains cloyingly dull. Much like my issues with Jonathan Levine’s work in Warm Bodies, Seth Gordon provides no finesse to the limited material he’s working with. This was exemplified in Horrible Bosses and even his documentary features (Freakonomics and The King of Kong) – the material he deals with ranges in quality, but the constant throughout is a dull directorial presence.
My last review was for Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects – it’s infinitely more interesting and intelligently made than Identity Thief. He’s claiming that it will be his last theatrical release – a recent interview with Mary Kaye Schilling acknowledges his frustration over the tyranny of narrative. Looking at a film like Identity Thief, it’s not hard to see this tyranny exercising control over the medium.