There’s a moment in Identity Thief, an otherwise ordinary studio comedy, when the extraordinary happens. The moment itself isn’t unusual – merely that inevitable point when the comic star, Melissa McCarthy in this case, has to shed her schtick just long enough to inject the antic proceedings with a dose of quiet poignancy. Typically the sincere bit is tossed off and it’s right back to uproar again, yet not here. McCarthy digs deeply into these precious seconds and surfaces with something altogether remarkable – suddenly we’re watching a different movie. But more about that later.
Let’s start with the movie we’re mainly watching, essentially a road flick that riffs off Planes,Trains & Automobiles – the sober straight-man travelling with his chubby, lively companion who teaches him to loosen up and fly right. Sandy (Jason Bateman) is a mild-mannered paper-pusher living in Denver with his wife and two kids. Way off in Florida, Diana (McCarthy) swipes his identity, forges a wallet-full of credit cards, and heads out on a shopping spree – booze for the whole bar, makeup by the truck load, a car she will use, Jet Skis she won’t. It’s consumerism run riot, binge-spending by a binge-eater, purchasing power hyper-inflated in a fun-house mirror.
And who better than the McCarthy persona to embody such unharnessed, unhealthy freedom – the super-sized white American woman, large and largely confident. (From Queen Latifah to Oprah, the super-sized black American woman is differently imposing, and not confined to the ghetto of comedy.) But, compared to Bridesmaids, she gives that persona a twist here – less sexually aggressive than sexually needy, and with an undertone of vulnerability. “People like you don’t have friends,” snaps a barkeep early on, and McCarthy widens her eyes to register the pain, then rushes back to the mall to prove him wrong. There, all the sales clerks are her bosom buddies – as long as she’s buying.
Meanwhile, back in Denver, Sandy gets wind of the scam. With the cops as useless as ever and his boss threatening to can him, he hatches a plan: to jet out to Orlando, corral Diana, and return with her to clear his good name. In their initial meeting, she punches him in the throat and he throttles her with a guitar – in other words, under the pedestrian direction of Seth Gordon, the ordinary studio comedy begins.
Soon, yoked together, the pair hit the open road, chased by a couple of gangsters and a grizzled skiptracer, but no need to fret about them – they’re just fifth business added to up the zany quotient. Really, this a two-hander that unfolds at two distinctly separate speeds. The low gear is the most enjoyable, when Bateman and McCarthy are allowed to trade improvised barbs that are sharp but surprisingly muted. The high gear, of course, brings a raucous litany of runaway trucks, overturned vans, snakes crawling up pant legs, vomit spewing onto shirts, and the likes of “Big Chuck” inviting Big Diana for a mighty roll in the hay. She’s genuinely touched by the offer.
Which brings us to the moment. It’s in St. Louis, the journey winding down and Diana, courtesy of a kindly cosmetician, subjected to a complete makeover – gone are the white-trash prints and industrial-strength eyeliner, replaced by subtle hues and a simple black dress. “You look beautiful,” Sandy says, and means it. With his identity restored, he wants to know hers, and asks for her “real name.” That’s when it happens.
McCarthy delivers the moment of pathos in a totally different voice, tears staining her puffy face, as feelings awfully real and tainted in tragedy bubble up from deep within the comic persona. It’s startling, it’s wholly incongruous, yet it’s undeniably moving. God, how this woman can act and, within the brief frames of that different film, how we long to see the rest of it.