Why Do Identity Thief's Creators Fear What Audiences Love about Melissa McCarthy?

Just a week or so after the Pentagon reversed its ban on allowing female soldiers into combat, here's another breakthrough, of a sort: The funniest scenes in the confused and shaggy comedy Identity Thief are of Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman beating the hell out of each other. McCarthy — playing a multi-named serial liar and credit-card fraud artist we'll call Diana — clocks man after man with a vicious neck punch. Brought down by such a jab, Bateman — as Sandy Patterson, the actor's usual sane fellow whose life is infested with plot-driving crazies — goes all in, clocking her, tackling her, even braining her with the stolen bric-a-brac that clutters Diana's home.

I'm not going to argue that this man hitting this woman for laughs is some kind of a progressive triumph. But it is at the very least a victory for whatever is the opposite of sexism. McCarthy gets bashed about like a Stooge, and she bashes back with riotous abandon. Sadly, there's only about three minutes of this in a movie that is otherwise as much of a shambles as the home these brawlers crash through.

More on the shambles in a bit. First, though, an appreciation for another fine moment, one of the half dozen to hope that someone one day assembles into a YouTube Identity Thief supercut. Early on, Sandy teams up with Diana to escape the angry gangsters whose appearance was guaranteed the moment the producers realized this was a buddy comedy. Because director Seth Gordon can't maintain a mood for long, the leads pull over, exit the car and squabble on the highway shoulder, despite being pursued by killers with guns. Squat Diana, who is at this point in the story Bateman's hostage, decides to bolt, and McCarthy musters up a hopeless comic sprint, one clearly taking all Diana has in her. Lean Bateman pursues with the lightest of jogs and catches her, wholly unwinded.


Identity Thief

Identity Thief

Directed by Seth Gordon. Written by Steve Conrad. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau and Amanda Peet. Opens February 8.

Here the joke is not simply on McCarthy's body, which too often in Identity Thief is held up as ludicrous or offensive. Instead, this one time, the joke is in how she contrasts her body with Bateman's, in the honest but exaggerated frisson generated when her sloppy exertion meets his prim ease. Briefly, these two stars are an actual comedy team, sharing the frame, the funny stuff building up from the energy between them. For most of the rest of the film, they're solo acts, each doing what audiences expect of them: She yells and exhibits an unsocialized horniness; he regards her with dismay and disgust.

Yes, disgust. The producers of Identity Thief seem to find McCarthy's body loathsome, despite the fact that so many of America's moviegoers are built like her. For much of the film, Diana is costumed just as she would be if she were played by a male comic in drag: slathered in garish makeup, swathed in hideous patterned blouses, hair teased out like mid-'80s Edie McClurg's might have been if she auditioned for Stryper. Her sexual appetite is presented as inherently funny — although McCarthy, with her inventive delivery, makes it legitimately funny, even with the goop obscuring that wonderfully communicative face audiences are paying to see.

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