Melissa McCarthy and the problem of the grotesque.
Photo by Guy D'Alema/Universal Pictures
Watching Identity Thief, the new Seth Gordon road comedy starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, I found myself thinking a lot about the female comic grotesque. It’s easy, and safe, to space in and out of such abstractions during the viewing of Identity Thief—the story proceeds along well-worn tracks and can be rejoined without confusion at any time, while the chances of missing out on a big laugh are, alas, minimal.
On the current American movie landscape, female comedians working in the grotesque vein—most notably McCarthy, along with the suddenly everywhere Rebel Wilson—occupy an uneasy position between feminist trailblazers and preservers of the status quo. On the one hand, the fact that their extra-large bodies lie outside the narrowly prescribed realm of leading-lady desirability—that they belong to no category ending with the letters -ILF—gives them the freedom to explore over-the-top, “unfeminine” behavior with glorious impunity. (Think of McCarthy expressing her raw animal lust to the air marshal played by her real-life husband in Bridesmaids, or Wilson defiantly reveling in her plus-size bulk as Pitch Perfect’s self-christened “Fat Amy.”)
On the other hand, the range of roles available to actresses like McCarthy and Wilson (both of whom, like any right-thinking comedy fan, I would like to see in as many movies as possible) can be as narrow as the performers themselves are wide. Diana, the needy, amoral grifter who’s the title character of Identity Thief may be the most brazenly grotesque character McCarthy’s played yet, though she exists somewhere on the same spectrum with the proudly eccentric sister-in-law of Bridesmaids. Tacky, loud, and oblivious to all social and moral codes, Diana dresses in hideously garish clothes and is prone to drooly open-mouthed naps. She’s also unbridled in all her appetites, whether for food, alcohol, or sex. In the movie’s raunchiest scene (the only one that justifies its R rating), she engages in a yee-hawing motel tryst with a lonely cowboy played by Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet. It’s not even feminist theorizing to say that Diana represents femaleness at its most abject: She’s explicitly positioned by the story as the world’s most unappealing woman, the unfuckable absolute. (Hence, I guess, the purported hilarity of her encounter with Stonestreet’s equally abject Big Chuck. Two fat people having sex! Oh, my sides.)
Thanks to McCarthy’s abundant comic gifts and those of her equally ill-served straight man Jason Bateman, Identity Thief doesn’t leave nearly as icky a taste as it could have, but Gordon—whose Horrible Bosses I found similarly underscripted and flat—only taps into a fraction of his actors’ potential. Bateman plays Sandy Bigelow, a stressed-out accountant at a Denver financial firm whose shot at a lucrative new job is threatened when he learns that someone in Florida has stolen his good name and is busily besmirching it, racking up drunk-and-disorderlies and stratospheric unpaid bills. Sandy stands to lose a lot if he can’t track down the faux Sandy Bigelow and wrest back his life from her: He has two lovely children, not to mention a beautiful pregnant wife (Amanda Peet), who’s bizarrely forbearing about her husband’s increasingly cryptic phone calls from the road.
I need to check and make sure my credit-card company offers a better fraud-insurance program than Sandy Bigelow’s—one that gives cardholders options besides flying to the thief’s home city, breaking into her house and forcing her to come along on a cross-country drive back to Denver. Along the way, Sandy and Diana (if that is her real name) encounter significant obstacles: As it turns out, she’s being pursued simultaneously by a model-gorgeous pair of bickering hired killers (Génesis Rodriguez and T.I.) and a grizzled credit-company “skip tracer” (Robert Patrick). And then there are the car crashes. And the bank heist. And the rattlesnake up the pant leg.
It would be easier to forgive Identity Thief its overfamiliar comic setups and shameless gag-recycling (someone is throat-punched by McCarthy approximately every 20 minutes, and endless “fun” is had with the gender neutrality of Sandy’s first name) if the movie’s second half didn’t make such an abrupt about-face from soliciting our revulsion to begging for our pity. Worse still, the movie’s final scenes attempt to reshape the vulgar, anarchic Diana into something resembling an acceptable rom-com heroine. In a makeover sequence that approaches The Breakfast Club’s in its deep philosophical wrongness, Diana submits to the ministrations of three catty department-store employees, who openly mock her appearance before beckoning her over and transforming her into a tastefully styled, slimmingly black-clad beauty. Now there’s a moment where a throat punch or three might have come in handy.