The Fat Lady Zings: Identity Thief Steals the Weekend

Melissa McCarthy joins Jason Bateman to trump the critics' barbs and score a hefty debut for 'Identity Thief'

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Bob Mahoney / Universal Pictures

Neither snow nor more snow in the populous Northeast could keep moviegoers from seeing a so-so comedy with a PG-13 rating. Identity Thief, starring charming Everyman Jason Bateman and the plus-size, indeed plush-size funny girl Melissa McCarthy, filched a surprisingly sunny $36.6 million — more than its thrifty $35-million production budget — to win the weekend at the North American box office, according to preliminary studio estimates.

The Bateman-McCarthy caper provided the only good financial news of the weekend, when no other entry took in as much as $12 million. The holdover zom-rom-com Warm Bodies finished second, pulling in $11.5 million, and Steven Soderbergh’s pill thriller Side Effects was third with a downer $10 million. The weekend’s total revenue slumped more than 40% from the same frame last year, when The Vow and Safe House each earned more than $40 million. The numbers fell below even the recession doldrums of early Feb. 2011, when three movies — the Adam Sandler Just Go With It, Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never concert film and the animated feature Gnomeo & Juliet — each amassed more than $25 million. For the third weekend in a row, business dropped from the preceding year, and it can’t all be blamed on Mother Nature.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Warm Bodies)

[UPDATE: Final figures released Monday show Identity Thief with $34.55 million, about 6% less than originally announced, and Side Effects at $9.3 million, or 7% below the Sunday estimate. Silver Linings Playbook, whose weekend earnings The Weinstein Company has consistently overestimated, actually took in $6.4 million, 7% off the predicted tally. Some of the difference may be attributed to studios’ optimistic guesses at post-blizzard movie attendance in the Northeast. Yet all other films on the leader board finished within about $100,000 of their Sunday numbers.] 

Identity Thief, which sends Bateman on a cross-country (Detroit to Miami) quest of redeeming his good name when con artiste McCarthy swipes his credit-card and ID, didn’t rely on critical raves or audience hosannas to grow its audience. The reviewers’ aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes rated the movie at a dolorous 24%, and first-night attendees surveyed by the CinemaScore pollsters gave it a not-so-hot “B” grade. But older, female-skewing viewers — 57% women, 57% over the age of 30 — queued en masse for the season’s first big PG-13 comedy. So far this year, Hollywood has released nine R-rated movies, mostly shoot-’em-ups with aging male leads, and only three PG-13s: the horror films Mama and Warm Bodies, and now Identity Thief. By no coincidence, that trio of unrestricted movies has far out-performed the glut of bloody melodramas.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Identity Thief)

One industry trade blog detected another factor in Identity Thief’s big B.O. “Take That, Rex Reed,” read The Wrap’s report of the weekend box office. In his denunciation of “the worst road movie since The Guilt Trip” (which opened as long ago as Dec.), the New York Observer critic took aim at McCarthy, best known to moviegoers for taking a poop in a sink in Bridesmaids. When Reed called her a “cacophonous, tractor-sized… obese and obnoxious… female hippo,” the actresses’ colleagues sprang to her defense with equal chivalry. Eric Stonestreet, who plays a stranger the McCarthy character has rough sex with, went on Twitter to observe, “Turns out, Rex Reed didn’t die sad and alone 10 years ago. Nope. He’s alive and starving for attention, so lets give him some.” McCarthy’s Bridesmaids director Paul Feig Tweeted: “For his catty and school bully name-calling of the supremely talented Melissa McCarthy, I cordially invite Mr. Rex Reed to go f— himself.” Reed’s comments were gross, no doubt, but for The Wrap to find a connection between the barbs of a 74-year-old reviewer and the box-office success of Identity Thief is an assumption that’s even grosser.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Bridesmaids)

Insiders thought that Side Effects, which cost $30 million to make, would open more bullishly. This twisty thriller with an attractive cast — Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones — won the benediction of reviewers, with an 85 “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes. But these critics felt also bound to withhold some of the movie’s plot manipulations, perhaps confusing or boring potential audiences. Those who went were underwhelmed by what they saw: the CinemaScore was the same blah “B” as Identity Thief snagged. Nor did the film’s R rating, for some brief bedroom and homicide hijinks, lure the lurid-minded. The only hope: that upmarket customers in the Northeast, snowed in on Fri. and Sat., will catch up with the movie later.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Side Effects

Soderbergh, who turned 50 last month, has indicated that Side Effects will be the last movie he’ll direct for theatrical release, at least for a few years. If so, he leaves an almost unique box-office legacy that has mixed gigantic hits with the minutest of indie films. His trilogy of Ocean’s adventures, starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt, earned more than $1.1 million worldwide; his 2000 tandem of Erin Brockovich and Traffic each topped $100 million domestic, as did last summer’s Tatum-starring Magic Mike. Yet, in that same period, seven of Soderbergh’s art-house efforts — Full Frontal, Bubble, The Good German, Che Part I, Che Part II, The Girlfriend Experience and the Spalding Gray documentary And Everything Is Going Fine — earned less than $7 million in total. Soderbergh films aren’t either all or nothing at all: a few, like The Informant! ($33.3 million) and Contagion ($75.7 million), achieved middling results, the area that Side Effects is likely to occupy. One thing’s sure: the director’s threatened sabbatical will deprive American movies of its most indefatigable, least predictable auteur.

(READ: Lily Rothman’s Q&A with the forensic psychiatrist behind Side Effects)

Four films in the top 10 are nominees for the Best Picture Oscar. Silver Linings Playbook, in fourth place with $6.9 million, continued its strong showing with the rom-com crowd even as if tried to convince Academy members of its gravitas by pushing the plot’s subsidiary mental-health theme. Playbook, which hit $90 million in its 13th week, wasn’t the only veteran on the list. Ben Affleck’s Argo, in its 18th week of release, soared to eighth place on the wings of its victories in the Producers, Directors and Screen Actors Guild awards — and, today, nods from the British Academy awards for Best Film and Director — that cement the movie’s current status as Oscar front-runner. The other true-life CIA-hero drama, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, held strong with a $4-million weekend and $83.6 million in an eight-week span.

(READ: the Kathryn Bigelow cover story by subscribing to TIME)

Other Best Picture finalists — Django Unchained, Lincoln, Life of Pi and Les Misérables — finished in the top 15 this weekend, and all have earned well over $100 million at North American theaters. Whatever movie emerges triumphant on Feb. 24, it will not be a little-seen critics’ and Academy fave like The Artist last year ($44.7 million in  total domestic revenue) or Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker in 2010 ($17 million) but a genuinely popular movie. The top Oscar-winner will also be, one way or another, the people’s choice.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Identity Thief, $36.6 million, first weekend
2. Warm Bodies, $11.5 million; $36.7 million, second week
3. Side Effects, $10 million, first weekend
4. Silver Linings Playbook, $6.9 million; $90 million, 13th week
5. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, $5.75 million; $43.8 million, third week
6. Mama, $4.3 million; $64 million, fourth week
7. Zero Dark Thirty, $4 million; $83.6 million, eighth week
8. Argo, $2.5 million; $123.7 million, 18th week
9. Django Unchained, $2.3 million; $154.5 million, seventh week
10. Bullet to the Head, $2 million; $8.2 million, second week