In director Seth Gordon’s Identity Thief, Jason Bateman plays a mild-mannered accountant who falls prey to a skilled con artist (Melissa McCarthy). This Diana-assuming-that’s-even-her-real-name threatens to destroy the good name of Sandy Bigelow Patterson by ruining his credit and putting the police on his tail. She imperils his job/livelihood and, indirectly, his life by bringing down upon his heads — real and fake — the wrath of a drug lord and a bounty hunter. To save himself, Sandy must find Diana in Florida and bring her to Denver, both for prosecution and to prove to his boss (John Cho) that he’s not a deadbeat.
This often very mean-spirited movie about modern rage plays out with nods to several road-trip classics. Craig Mazin laces his screenplay with references to films like It Happened One Night (Diana tries to lure a ride while they’re hitchhiking) and Sullivan’s Travels (Sandy ends up in the shoes of a homeless man). And between Bateman’s Martinesque smirk and McCarthy’s Candyesque bulk, we have a boy-girl version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Identity Thief’s best joke is how deluded Sandy is about Diana. He’s seen her mug shot: she’s “Hobbit height,” he observes. “I’m going after Bilbo.” (Bateman is, as ever, reliably funny and better than his sour-smelling surroundings, but maybe it’s time to stop bashing his agent. Hardly the innocent lamb led to slaughter, the actor is also choosing these parts.) Sandy packs handcuffs and, just in case, his wife’s anxiety pills, and proceeds to get beaten up and robbed of his car as soon as he finds Diana. By the time he arrives at her house, he’s ready to do physical harm.
Having been the victim of identity theft like countless others, I understand Sandy’s murderous impulses. And yet, watching him bludgeon Diana with a household appliance and guitar didn’t feel particularly satisfying. Not that it does him any good; Diana rebounds like a jack-in-a-box. In many ways, this encapsulates the experience of having one’s identity stolen. You put out one fire and then find another somewhere else, whether it be a box of checks the thief is busily bouncing or $3,000 worth of sweatshirts and jeans charged to the Gap. (Yeah, I’m still angry.) And you, like Sandy, rarely find assistance from law enforcement. “Our percentage of solving these cases is pretty high,” a detective (Morris Chestnut) tells him. “Five to 10 percent.”
Despite how invigorating it may be to see a victim take matters into his own hands, Diana is not a real identity thief. She’s a Hollywood construct, complete with a sob story shared late in the game that is meant to justify her crimes and turn her into a sympathetic character. It’s sleazy storytelling. Yet the movie screws with your head until you start to think it’s a good thing. Here’s McCarthy, last year an Oscar nominee, throwing herself into the business of making fat-and-friendless jokes — she’s such a trooper that you want something better for her. And you’re sucked into wanting Sandy and Diana to start bonding, to become pals and do the inevitable teaching-each-other-lessons bit, if only to liberate this extraordinarily likable actress from such a gross and venal role. She must learn to be more decent (sort of). And he, having started this whole thing by foolishly giving out his personal information on the phone, has to be less of a trusting sucker. Identity Thief reflects a common pattern in contemporary comedies: issuing invitations to hate, loath and detest characters (in Gordon’s last movie, Horrible Bosses, also starring Bateman, Jennifer Aniston played a pig), then demanding that we come around to affection. These films open a pressure valve for the moviegoers who feel damaged by the world, asking us to live vicariously through people assaulting each other before telling us to buck up and be cheerful at the end. This is not Zen. This is today. It is now.
(MORE: TIME Review of Horrible Bosses)
Is it O.K. to still point out that Identity Thief is disturbing? In one scene, Diana has rough sex with a potential mark (Eric Stonestreet) she meets in a bar. Their interaction veers between the nastily comic — “Hey, look at the big people having sex!” — and the sad, since both are lonely and, we’re told, intimacy is rare for them. But there’s also an undercurrent of punishment. Not rape, but something in that general ballpark of misogyny. (This is a movie in which the worst insult hurled at a man is that he’s a “vagina.” There’s a feminist essay in there somewhere, especially since it is Diana who employs the word.) The morning after, Diana is in pain, complaining to Sandy that her date might have torn something. Across Bateman’s pleasantly bland features flickers a look that suggests Sandy is not displeased to think of Diana’s womanhood being damaged. It’s just a movie, with a dramatic arc that’s supposed to make all that mean stuff drift away into the ether as friendship is born, but it’s that look that hangs around like a bad smell.