In case you failed to notice, Optimism Vaccine hates Identity Thief. And yet three of us paid (dearly) to see it in theaters. Steve’s hatred of the film is well documented. Shawn detested it so much that he couldn’t even stomach writing about it. My therapist theorizes that I emerged from our screening with a mild case of PTSD. As a man who’s dabbled in the obese arts, something about the film stuck in my craw, to the point that I’m still stewing about it eight months later. There’s something indescribably grim about sitting through a bad comedy. Bad movies can be a lot of fun, but 111 minutes of “jokes” abrading your senses like so much coarse grained sandpaper can leave you clamoring for a blissful retreat in solitary confinement. So I feel it is my duty to present our readers with five methods for getting through this loathsome work, in the unfortunate event that some well-intentioned lass grabs a copy from the Red Box on her way home from work.
1. View the film as a key piece of evidence for your thesis on the death of the Fat Funny Man.
The odd thing about weight is that often times the larger you get, the less visible you become to others. Men aren’t threatened by you. Women look through you. At some point, you become furniture. Just a comfy old chair (Or couch, in extreme cases. But never a loveseat. Never a loveseat.) tucked away in the corner of the room. It’s only natural then, that a lot of overweight people spend their lives trying to get your attention. One common method being through comedy. The Fat Funny Man (FFM) trope has existed as long as film itself. From Fatty Arbuckle to Jon Belushi, some of the most successful film comedies rely on a brand of physical comedy that lends itself to individuals of a certain gastric stature. Since the death of Chris Farley in 1997, Hollywood has been grasping for the next hefty comedian to plug into that proven formula, without much success. The FFM concept has managed to survive Horatio Sanz’s Boat Trip and the career of Will Sasso, but something about Melissa McCarthy’s rise to prominence feels less innocuous.
The internet is filled with reasoned, insightful debates about the merits of Melissa McCarthy. You could lose days combing through IMDb threads that this exchange nicely summates:
Somewhere between hyperbolic praise and physical repulsion lies the actual problem with Melissa McCarthy: She brings nothing new to the table. Most of her shtick reads as a hollow imitation of her forebears. She’s been called the female Chris Farley, a notion rooted in the fact that she’s spent the majority of her film career doing a bad Farley impression. Farley’s gift was his ability to marry a child-like naiveté with his loud overbearing antics. McCarthy certainly has the loud part down pat.
The failures of Identity Thief can’t be laid entirely at McCarthy’s feet, however. The film utilizes a well-worn road trip framework most famously employed in the 1987 film Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which Steve Martin plays Neal Page, a man saddled with the oafish Del Griffith (John Candy) on a seemingly endless trip home for Thanksgiving. Martin portrays Page as something of a self-involved jerk whose interactions with Griffith (the ostensible protagonist) over the course of their journey lead him to realize all that he’s taken for granted. Candy’s Griffith provides the film’s heart, and an agency for growth in both men. This formula also proved the pinnacle of Chris Farley’s brief career (1995’s Tommy Boy), so it seems a natural fit for executives seeking to establish McCarthy in the role those men once occupied. However, Identity Thief makes the unconscionable decision to cast Martin’s priggish Page as the sole protagonist, foisting Jason Bateman into his unsalvageable shoes. No one was clamoring for a Tommy Boy sequel in which David Spade’s prickly Richard snidely quips through the heartland of America. Hell, Spade’s post-Farley career should be all the evidence you need to indicate that such a character can’t effectively function as a film’s protagonist.
Bateman’s Sandy Patterson is accosted at every turn by the intolerable McCarthy, on a road trip necessitated solely by the latter’s criminal activity. Patterson is almost indistinguishable from the Neal Page that snarled at John Candy throughout the first act of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The problem is that rather than imbuing the film with much needed heart, McCarthy’s Diana is infinitely more oblivious and self-obsessed, taking no one’s well-being but her own into account through most of the run time. The film features a scene lifted almost directly from Tommy Boy which nicely illustrates my point. Note how Farley’s Tommy Callahan utilizes empathy and a certain lunatic charm to curry a waitress’s favor, while McCarthy employs cruelty and lies to take advantage of a similar situation:
The nature of these characters allows for zero growth, making each stop on their journey an exercise in redundancy. Watching two miserable assholes tool across America does not make for an enriching experience. Frankly, I was rooting for the cartel, which was inexplicably involved in the proceedings. Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Tommy Boy utilized a common antagonist: Time. We have to get from A to B in a certain amount of time. Hijinks ensue. Identity Thief sets up a similar premise, but heaps on bounty hunters and cartel hitmen because… poor screenwriting. Their trip does feature one inspired bit of improvisation, in which McCarthy enlivens the proceedings with a gleeful pantomime of a catchy tune playing on the car radio. It’s the sort of thing we can all relate to, and perfectly exhibits what a gifted physical comedian can bring to such a small moment:
But maybe I’m reading this all wrong. Identity Thief’s reliance on physical violence for laughs harkens back to a much older Fat Funny Man archetype. Slapstick was the main vehicle for the FFM through the first half of the 20th century, and the sort of comedy featured in Identity Thief would certainly be right at home in a Three Stooges production. Perhaps rather than channeling John Hughes, the film sought to establish McCarthy in the role of Curly, with Bateman as the cruel, pragmatic Moe. But without the faintest veneer of homage, this simply feels regressive. Comedy, like all film, has evolved a great deal since the 1940s, and watching someone get punched in the throat repeatedly does not a film make.
I’ve often heard McCarthy referred to as a remarkable improvisational comic, preternaturally gifted in the art of slapstick, so perhaps viewing some of her sketch comedy work would indicate that she is simply a throwback to the fat comedians of yesteryear, and that she’ll eventually find the right vehicle for her art. Her recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, where prominent Fat Funny Men John Belushi and Chris Farley proved their viability, seemed to indicate otherwise. Here’s the most popular sketch of the night:
Let no one say that McCarthy’s humor isn’t rooted in her weight. A pizza eating business? Really? Guess I missed the Abbott and Costello classic that was simply a 90 minute static shot of gravy dribbling down Lou Costello’s chin.
2. Pretend the script was repurposed from an early draft of The Dark Knight Rises
The only way I could make McCarthy’s character (credited only as Diana) work in my mind was by envisioning her as an enigmatic member of Batman’s rogues’ gallery. It’s really the only way to justify the sort of anti-characterization she’s allotted. I prefer to believe this script was pulled out of David S. Goyer’s waste bin shortly after Heath Ledger’s unfortunate departure from the third Christopher Nolan Batman film, dusted off, and repurposed as a feel good buddy comedy. Every time Bat(e)man inquired about “Diana’s” past, I found myself waiting for her to lapse into, “My father, was a drinker, and a fiend. And one night, he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn't like that. Not. One. Bit…” Much like Ledger’s Joker, Diana provides us with two separate, presumably bogus, backstories. Maybe we were supposed to believe one of them, but we’re given no reason to do so. The character exists to deceive, often to no discernible end. Some people just want to watch the world burn.
Perhaps giving us a bit of insight into how The Joker would have fit into the framework of The Dark Knight Rises, Diana launches a Bane-esque campaign to strip our protagonist of his financial assets. Apparently, this draft would have eschewed Gotham’s reckoning for more of a Dark Knight Returns angle. During the course of their raucous journey, Diana convinces Bateman’s Sandy to embrace identity theft. It’s an act born of desperation and vengeance, perhaps akin to The Joker finally forcing Batman to break his only rule.
I'd like to believe the film would have retained the road trip format, with Batman transporting an escaped Joker back to Arkham in his car that isn’t a car. What better than a long road trip to finally push Bats over the gory precipice? The seventh time Joker asked to stop at Arby’s was more than he could bear. One can only hear the words Big Montana so many times before bloodshed becomes an inevitability. While we can only speculate as to the potential plot of the film, I’m fairly confident it would have relentlessly pounded us with subtext about the dangers of consumerism.
To be fair, Sandy Patterson is really more surrogate Jim Gordon than feasible Batman. His family and livelihood are continually jeopardized by the actions of megalomaniacal costumed loons. I’m so glad they didn’t go with the original ending to The Dark Knight, in which Gary Oldman brings the wife and kids to Arkham to have lunch with Uncle Joker. That just doesn’t make sense.
Please note that I wrote this entire segment without mentioning Oswald Cobblepot even once.
3. Slick your hair back, throw on your best Don Draper suit, load your CarouselTM with compelling slides, fire up a smoke and prepare to shill the film’s seemingly limitless potential for product placement.
The fact that Identity Thief isn’t crawling with product placement really says something about the quality of the film. It reeks of a script that was greenlit solely due to the vast potential for outside financing. Upon seeing the trailer, I assumed that LifeLock, having successfully cornered the Glenn Beck paranoiac market, had decided to branch out into Hollywood. I went in expecting a legendary display of product placement. I got nothing. Perhaps the honchos at LifeLock just didn’t care for the film. Lord knows I didn’t. But I would like to illustrate to those suits that, in spite its many failures, the film really could succeed in drumming up paranoia about identity theft. With that, I’ll begin my presentation.
Security is an easy way to connect with the consumer. It’s something we all strive to attain from early childhood, wrapped snugly in our beds at night. Most of us carried a blanket around with us as children, hoping to carry with it that sense of warmth and security. But this film presents the opportunity to connect with the viewer on a deeper, more personal level.
My first house, right after I moved away from home, may not have been in the best part of town, but I did what I could to make it my own. One night, there was a break in. At first, I was concerned with security. I ruminated over what I’d lost, the financial repercussions. But those are only objects. What lingered, what kept me up at night, was a profound sense of violation, a sense that I’d lost something… irretrievable. While Identity Thief may not succeed as comedy, it does an uncanny job of conveying that sense of violation to the audience.
Nothing is more sacred than your identity. You’ve worked your entire life to hone who you are. Most of us are painstakingly conscious of how we’re perceived by the world around us, and we strive to project our best selves. It stands to reason then, that having your identity compromised represents the worst sort of violation. Identity Thief makes us watch as Sandy Patterson, a hard working American doing the best he can, is stripped of everything that defines him, and made an embarrassment to his family and co-workers. All because Diana wanted a new jet ski. It truly is a harrowing thought. We are all subject to the whims of criminals thousands of miles away. Makes you want to reach for that blanket.
It’s to the credit of Melissa McCarthy that the audience isn’t just watching Sandy’s defilement, but experiencing it. Every second we’re exposed to Diana truly feels like a violation. The character is at every level an intruder, and her encroachment on your family movie night a desecration of that sacred institution. When the film ended, my initial reaction was once again to focus on what I’d lost. The time I’d wasted. The money I could have put toward a well-earned vacation. But what lingered, what has kept the film in my thoughts all these months later, is that sense of the irretrievable. I’ll never walk into a theater with the same sense of ebullience. What better metaphor for identity theft?
4. Be sure to pack your sensory deprivation tank. And plenty of peyote.
My pre-movie ritual has undergone a radical, but necessary, overhaul since I had the misfortune of seeing Identity Thief. Now, before I head out to buy my ticket, I stop off to rent a flatbed truck, then pop back home to load up the sensory deprivation tank I fashioned out of an old Frigidaire chest freezer (purchased on craigslist for a very reasonable price). The tank does weigh several hundred pounds, so be sure to bring at least three strong friends to aid in the loading process.
Here's a helpful hint: The tank also provides a great place to store contraband snacks. Just seal them in an airtight bag, and toss them into the tepid stew. If you’re afraid of getting guff from that stern ticket taker, just tell him it’s an iron lung. He won’t dare trifle with your right to respirate. The one drawback is that you’ll be forced to take an aisle seat. I know the extra foot traffic can be a bit of an inconvenience, but it beats the alternative.
Now, if the movie proves to be an interminable slog, you can retreat into the depths of the human mind. Just strip down, hop in the tank, and enjoy the serenity. I think you’ll find that a potent cocktail of hallucinogenics will prove quite the useful tool when embarking on an exploration into those deepest reaches of self. Sure, you run the risk of spontaneously devolving into a simian proto-human and butchering a theater full of innocents, but I say that’s a risk well worth taking.
5. Harness the film’s true potential - as the ultimate weight loss aid.
God, I need to lose weight. I had to sit through the entirety of Identity Thief’s end credits, for fear that I’d be tripped by some jeering theatergoer as I made my way to the exit. As it was, I was pelted by many a Milk Dud. I was struck by three separate cars as I made my way through the parking lot. Apparently the film had successfully convinced these patrons that my weight has rendered me impervious to physical harm. As my skull struck the fender of a 2003 Nissan Sentra, it struck me how oddly incongruous it is that, in a culture that has radically shifted away from the offensive, this sort of film still exists.
In recent years, society has mandated that comedy evolve to abandon the sort of exclusionary fare that it has often peddled. Frankly it’s no longer acceptable to trade in stereotypes. Except when it comes to fat people. That’s still fine. We’ve even endured a relatively recent trend of thin comedians donning fat suits in order to fart their way through films. Eddie Murphy started the trend with his 1996 film The Nutty Professor. Imagine, if you will, the outrage if this scene had been performed by a white comedian:
Murphy actually manages to pull this off, largely because the film features Sherman Klump as its obese moral compass. Murphy went beyond the pale with the sequel, entitled The Klumps, which features countless hilarious scenes of the titular Klumps decimating buffets and farting some more. He eventually bottomed out with the despicable Oscar Nominee, Norbit. Decades after blackface was recognized as an abomination, fatface had become all the rage. Mike Myers took the concept well beyond the bounds of civility in 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, which uses parody as a guise for unleashing a hateful caricature, aptly christened Fat Bastard. Myers stomps around in a truly grotesque fat suit, ordering things into his belly and describing his fecal matter in detail. It’s charming. Truly, a ripping sendup of all those preposterously fat guys James Bond was habitually battling. Again, imagine Myers portraying a character named Black Bastard who walked around spitting watermelon seeds. That’s a film that would never get made. For good reason.
Oddly enough, Identity Thief doesn’t really wallow in these sorts of stereotypes. There’s nary a fart joke to be found. Yet, I had an absolutely visceral reaction to it. I've been struggling to put my finger on precisely why. It starts with the fact that the film isn't funny. At all. In the face of this humorless void, the viewer is left to stoically observe the flaws that laughter may well have masked. Beyond that, I think the utter lack of development afforded McCarthy’s character made it painfully clear that she existed solely as a fat person for the audience to mock. And while my intention isn’t to totally discount the merits of tasteless, demographic based humor (I’ve certainly been known to dabble in it on occasion), I simply hope to illustrate that it is no longer the norm. In a society increasingly concerned with bullying and political correctness, let’s not forget about the fat man. Just because I happen to have a bit of extra padding doesn’t imply that I’m interested in playing the role of punching bag.
In the past year alone, there’s been outrage over Samuel L. Jackson’s hammy portrayal of an Uncle Tom stereotype in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and much gnashing of teeth over Johnny Depp’s Tonto. So where is the outcry over Identity Thief? A demographic born of depression, self-loathing, sloth, and glandular malfeasance is decidedly unlikely to mobilize in opposition to their portrayal in a lowbrow comedy. The fact is, even most fat people don’t like fat people. Hell, most of us barely tolerate ourselves. Have you ever seen a fat person eat chicken? I’d advise against it. We’re gifted with an innate ability to render a succulent bird into bleached bones, seemingly exhumed from some long forgotten tomb, in 10 minutes flat. I only consume chicken in absolute darkness in order to hide my shame. I’ve often pondered whether the obese would best serve society processed for much needed soap and bone meal. Uncomfortable with these sentiments? That’s a start.
It’s in this spirit that I’m officially declaring my intention to launch a Jared-esque campaign in partnership with Universal Studios. Together, we'll keep those DVDs flying off the shelves in perpetuity. My plan, Bettering Yourself Through Self-loathing, is simple: Craving a meatball sub? Watch Identity Thief. Can’t motivate yourself to get to the gym? Watch Identity Thief, and watch those pounds melt away. Viewing Identity Thief once a week can’t possibly be good for your mental health, but it beats subsisting entirely on Subway, right?
Is there a point to all this bloviating, beyond ‘Identity Thief isn’t a good movie’? Sure. Have some accountability. Identity Thief is the 14th highest grossing film of 2013. It made over $134 million at the box office. And as a site, we contributed 30 of those dollars. Shame on us. When Identity Thief 2 inevitably rolls into theaters, do yourself a favor and pop in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. When a film this derivative and joyless is a raging success, why should you expect the studios to put any effort into their future product? And to all my fat brethren, Del Griffith said it better than I ever could:
You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I'm an easy target. Yeah, you're right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you... but I don't like to hurt people's feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I'm not changing. I like... I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. 'Cause I'm the real article. What you see is what you get.