By Scott Bowles
When director Seth Gordon began his search for the scoundrel to anchor his comedy Identity Thief(Rated R, 1 hr., 47 min., opens nationwide Friday), he wanted a man in the starring role.
Then he caught the premiere of Bridesmaids, and decided to give Melissa McCarthy top billing inIdentityThief (2.5 stars out of four).
Thank goodness for Gordon's viewing tastes.
Preposterous, goofy and a clear ripoff of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Identity still manages to make off with just enough laughs to work, thanks to the wondrous McCarthy, one of the few actresses in Hollywood allowed to showcase her wit and charisma as much as her physique.
She's at her comedic top here, exercising more range than she did even in the terrific Bridesmaids.
And while Identity couldn't hold a veil toBridesmaids, McCarthy steals and uplifts every scene she gets in Identity, the story of a woman who lives high on the hog and credit of a ninny (Jason Bateman) who offers his Social Security number faster than a handshake.
Bateman's character is so naive as to nearly derail this sweet comedy, but McCarthy has become a modern-day John Candy, a soul too good-spirited not to steal your heart, split your sides and, occasionally, bring a lump to your throat.
Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Bateman) is an everyday Pat, a guy with an androgynous name, a dead-end job and a growing family.
The movie does a nifty job of capturing modern-day perils: having a job that could be done by an app, a savings account that doesn't save much and a boss that could use a good kick in the slats.
And the comedy captures nicely the paralyzing violation of having your identity stolen as Diana (McCarthy), a Florida scammer, turns Sandy's personal information into her personal bank account, running up bar tabs and helping herself to a couple of toaster ovens.
Identity doesn't know when to stop, though, as we watch Diana score item after item, including a custom-painted Fiat 500, as Sandy goes on his oblivious way through his $50,000-a-year job as an executive paper pusher.
He's eventually cuffed and arrested when Diana skips bail using Sandy's ID. The cops, of course, are no help, and tell Sandy his only hope is to become his own bounty hunter.
It's too easy a set-up for the road trip that follows, and hews way too closely to John Hughes' brilliant Planes, the 1987 gem with Steve Martin and Candy. As in that film, our duo can't find a way home except in a dilapidated car.
And the movie piles a lot more into its 107-minute tale than Planes did, including another fugitive hunter (Robert Patrick) and a couple of killers (T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez) working at the behest of a third killer (Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks). The film doesn't need that many characters, particularly with McCarthy as her own one-woman show.
Bateman is solid as always, though his range remains limited from deadpan to slack-jawed. Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet has a nice role as Big Chuck, a hayseed whose persona is larger than his confidence.
But this is McCarthy's film, beginning to end. And like Candy, she's showing range far beyond slapstick and physical humor. There's no mistaking the genius of this actress.