Anyone who remembers McCarthy as the scene-stealing supporting player on TV series both good (“Gilmore Girls”) and forgettable (“Samantha Who?”) is probably still marveling at her unexpected ascent to stardom. After an undeniable breakout turn in “Bridesmaids,” McCarthy was suddenly elevated to Emmy-winning primetime comedy star (thanks to CBS’ “Mike & Molly,” also beneath her talents) and an Oscar-nominated movie star on the rise.
This is the year McCarthy gets the chance to prove she’s more than just a hilarious character actress in two high-profile movie roles: “The Heat,” a buddy cop comedy with Sandra Bullock, arrives this summer, but first up is “Identity Thief,” with McCarthy as a crafty criminal who comes face to face with one of her victims — nice guy family man Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Jason Bateman).
McCarthy tackles the role with go for broke gusto. If a few too many jokes come at the expense of her physical appearance, McCarthy counters any potential cruelty by investing her low-rent grifter with a surprising amount of compassion and invigorating energy. Whether she’s getting into a down and dirty brawl with Bateman, joyfully singing along to pop songs on the radio or demonstrating the improvisational wit that’s both a hallmark of her performance style and a perfect fit for her quick-thinking character, McCarthy has both the enthusiasm of someone finally getting a major career break and the proficiency of an established veteran.
She’s a refreshingly unpredictable performer, so it’s a shame the movie around her is such a predictable mess. There’s real potential in the opposites attract buddy comedy between McCarthy and Bateman (he’s up to the task, even though he’s constrained by another in a series of disappointingly bland big screen roles), but it’s lost inside a hyperactive screenplay that piles on useless subplots and ill-advised action scenes. “Identity Thief” plays like one of those junky ’80s vehicles Whoopi Goldberg got saddled with because Hollywood didn’t know what the hell else to do with her.
The contrived plot involves Bateman’s character traveling from Colorado to Florida to pick up McCarthy in person, drive her across country and convince her to confess to the police that she stole his identity, charged up mountains of debt and otherwise ruined his good name. All the while they’re being chased by two ruthless bounty hunters (T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez) working for a big time crime boss (Jonathan Banks) as well as a skiptracer (Robert Patrick) determined to collect on debts in their own highly dangerous ways.
“Identity Thief” works best when it allows McCarthy and Bateman to riff and bounce off each other. It doesn’t work at all when they’re involved in car chases and crashes or running from people who want them dead. There’s a kernel of promise in the set-up of a hardworking Everyman (Bateman) falling victim to both corporate greed (Jon Favreau cameos as Sandy’s boss, a caricature of 1% entitlement) and a narcissistic criminal (McCarthy), but the premise quickly curdles due to the inept and generic efforts, respectively, of screenwriter Craig Mazin (“Scary Movie 3,” “Scary Movie 4,” “Superhero Movie”) and director Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses”).
All that’s left is McCarthy giving it her all, even though the movie hardly merits the trouble. They’re just lucky they got her.