Identity Thief is a road movie with its creative lanes clogged, and a Mack truck comedian barreling through, anyway.
Melissa McCarthy, pound-for-pound the funniest woman in show biz these days, carries this cruel and usual raunchfest practically by default. There isn't a fat joke missed or drag stunt double skipped on a trip that proves getting there isn't always half the fun, or much at all.
McCarthy plays Diana, which may not be her name since she's a habitual liar and scam artist posing as others to rob their credit accounts. Diana's latest victim is an investment firm accountant with the conveniently unisex name Sandy (Jason Bateman), whose job should make him smarter than dishing out vital personal information to a stranger over the telephone. But smart isn't the kind of movie Identity Thief is.
Sandy's life and livelihood in Denver gets ruined by Diana's binge spending in Winter Park, on rounds-for-the-house bar tabs, beauty treatments and other desperate grabs for attention. You see, beneath her criminal exterior beats a lonely heart serving as characterization when profane bluster and throat-punch reflexes wear thin.
The only thing phonier than Diana's game is how director Seth Gordon passes off Georgia where principal filming occurred as Colorado, Florida and Missouri, using tightly framed locales and second-unit establishing shots. "Winter Park" is identified with an aerial view from what looks like Miami. Talk about identity theft.
Since the Denver police are helpless, Sandy vows to capture Diana and bring her back to confess, saving his job and family. Meanwhile, Diana's compulsive scamming has a pair of mob killers (Tip "T.I." Harris, Genesis Rodriguez) and a mangy dog of a bounty hunter (Robert Patrick) on her tail. Bateman is an accomplished straight man but even he seems stunned by all the commotion McCarthy and the screenplay pile on.
Identity Thief is scripted by Craig Mazin — known for writing sequels to The Hangover and Scary Movie — but the idea came from a six-year-old screenplay by Jerry Eeten, a Pinellas County high school teacher. Mazin shares a "story by" credit with Eeten, who recently told a Times reporter that he envisioned the identity thief as a man.
Switching to a woman is the best thing that happened to the movie, resulting in McCarthy's casting and Mazin crafting the movie's funniest gags to accommodate her gender, especially Sandy and Diana's motel bar encounter with a drunk (Eric Stonestreet) being conned with a promise of three-way sex, and the two-way rutting that results. And, yes, that raunchy sequence is the movie's comedic highlight.
At other times McCarthy obviously goes off-script, no matter who wrote her lines. Savvy viewers will recognize camera set-ups when Gordon simply lets her riff until running out of wisecracks then selects the funniest improvisation in the editing room. McCarthy is one of those talents deserving such creative leeway and it pays off. Just not often enough.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow him on Twitter @StevePersall.