By Michael Phillips 2015-12-11

By Michael Phillips

Tribune Newspapers Critic

1 1/2 stars

Debilitatingly witless, "Identity Thief" strands Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman on the shoulder of its own road-trip premise, an artificial construct reminiscent of "Due Date." Remember "Due Date," that sour thing with Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis? Neither do Downey and Galifianakis.

The screenwriter of "Identity Thief," Craig Mazin, gave us "The Hangover Part II." All these pictures belong to the same realm of exhausted, mean-spirited comedy, pushing casually sadistic mayhem in the guise of slapstick, destined to make millions on the backs of its actors. You can't really talk about any of these pictures in terms of their comic machinery because, at heart, they're barely comedies. They're situations in search of comedy.

All McCarthy has to do is show up, and the audience likes her, even when the audience is supposed to hate her, or when "Identity Thief" treats her character -- a brazen Florida con woman living large on the Visas of others -- like a feral, subhuman pathos dispenser.

When Denver accounts representative Sandy Patterson, played by Bateman, discovers his identity has been purloined and his credit cards are maxed out, trashing his good name, his employer (John Cho) declares him a bad risk for their startup company. Sandy is given one week to retrieve the con woman; bring her to Denver, all the while being tailed by drug dealers and a murderous bounty hunter; and turn her over to the police, thereby clearing up the mess the script tries so hard to establish gracefully.

We're meant to see Diana, McCarthy's character, as a funny/sad victim of circumstance, whose suburban Orlando home is stuffed with ill-gotten blenders and makeup, with a Jet Ski in the front yard. Sandy, her temperamental opposite, is presented as a milquetoast family man (Amanda Peet plays his blandly defined wife, whom we know only as someone who takes Xanax) whose backbone emerges, battered but for the better, during his treacherous road trip with Diana.

Bateman's a seriously skillful actor. But with inferior material, his fallback line reading becomes the sardonic, too-cool-for-the-room underreaction, which isn't the same thing as "milquetoast." He has the air of a cynical but bored winner, a man fighting his own irritation with everyone around him. That's not quite right for the audience-identification figure at the center of "Identity Thief."

As in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," the adversary we think we know at the outset (John Candy there, McCarthy here) is revealed to be something different and heartbreaking by the end. How a movie gets from A to Z is the question. "Identity Thief" paints Florida as a snake-infested (literally; there's a scene with a snake crawling up Bateman's pants) hotbed of prejudice and racism, and American screen comedy as little more than people shooting other people in the cheek or the foot, or someone getting smashed in the face with a guitar.

Director Seth Gordon made "Horrible Bosses," which was actually cruder than this movie though quite funny and nicely plotted. This time, Gordon is lost, and his style of shooting -- telescopic close-ups, which never give us enough space to appreciate the performers -- feels wrong for comedy. By the time McCarthy punches somebody in the throat for the fifth time, and the inevitable Taser sight gag gets recycled, "Identity Thief" has challenged the best abilities of everybody on-screen, including Eric Stonestreet, Cam on "Modern Family," as a barfly on the make. Crud has a way of doing that.

MPAA rating: R (for sexual content and language).

Running time: 1:51.

Cast: Jason Bateman (Sandy Patterson); Melissa McCarthy (Diana); Amanda Peet (Trish); John Cho (Daniel Casey).

Credits: Directed by Seth Gordon; written by Craig Mazin, Jerry Eeten and Steve Conrad; produced by Bateman, Pamela Abdy, Peter Morgan and Scott Stuber. A Universal Pictures release.

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