Landing as it did just as the ol' "Why are there no funny women?" debate was clearing its throat again, 2011's "Bridesmaids" was one of the best-timed comedies of the past decade. The breakout star of the ensemble was Melissa McCarthy, who put cliches to shame by being hilarious, and a woman, and of the robust physical proportions that Hollywood usually shuns. Critics and audiences gushed in harmony: Get that woman more work.
Well, someone did, installing McCarthy as the title crook in "Identity Thief." And with that, we've taken a step backward. It would be fair to say McCarthy is curiously unfunny in "Identity Thief," except almost nothing in "Identify Thief" is funny, obviating any curiosity. It's occasionally amusing, mostly flat and rote and dopey. McCarthy is scattershot, while the sap whose credit line she has pirated, Jason Bateman, is checkerboard-square and delivers all the laughs of your average nutrition label. They have a touch of comedic chemistry but nothing to work from. Gosh, it's as if director Seth Gordon ("Horrible Bosses") and screenwriter Craig Mazin (two "Scary Movie" sequels) stole from the two leads the very individual essence that made them them. If only we had a word for that.
Bateman and McCarthy begin the movie both using the name Sandy Patterson. He is the real Sandy: He has a pregnant wife, a couple of spunky kids, and a mid-level job at a financial firm in Denver made unbearable by his condescending cheapskate boss. He quits when coworkers, led by "Harold & Kumar" alum John Cho, break away to start a rival firm. As Sandy's life dangles in that balance, he realizes his credit cards have all been maxed out and a warrant is out for his arrest. He saves his job only by proving his identity has been stolen, and via the magic of movie logic decides to travel to Florida to coax his tormentor back to Denver, to fess up.
McCarthy doesn't relent easily. She's the picture of a frizz-haired human sneer, running constant low-grade cons and partial to a devastating little trachea-jab. Her snitty criminal — who agrees to roll with Sandy in part to escape a pair of drug cartel goons and a bounty hunter played by erstwhile liquid terminator Robert Patrick — softens over the course of their journey north. And there it becomes clear that "Identity Thief" doesn't have any ear at all for tone. Is it a madcap getaway movie? A physical comedy? A live-action "Financial Crimes for Dummies"? A pat, family-friendly redemption story? Or a take-no-prisoners raunch-romp about taking a prisoner?
"Identity Thief" never picks. It dooms itself as a grab-bag that winds up as an inert lump of attempted emotions and aborted giggles. As shaky as it was, it hauled in $36 million its first weekend out to win the box office. Americans followed through on their stated intention to patronize another McCarthy movie, even if they're quickly realizing this isn't the one they wanted. Maybe now that we know she's bankable, someone should get that woman some work worthy of her talents.