Finding just the right word to describe Identity Thief

Tuesday March 19th 2013

Hollywood comedy is in a really weird place at the moment. In the absence of any emergent young leads, its casting patterns have stalled in an area of identikit 40-something white men, and despite a target audience that we’re told time and time again is comprised primarily of pubescent boys, the genre’s key preoccupations seem to be married life, childrearing and the cruelties of ageing. Key to the establishment of this status quo has been Seth Gordon, whose trio of literally-titled blockbuster farces — Four ChristmasesHorrible Bosses and now Identity Thief — are emblematic of this shift towards a more middle-aged approach to comedy. The last of the three, out this Friday, sees Gordon team up with screenwriter Craig Mazin, who — since graduating from the Scary Movie franchise to take on the second two parts of The Hangover trilogy — has also secured his place on the LOLscape of contemporary American cinema.

For all their apparent simplicity, it’s a mistake to write off films like Identity Thief as nothing more than off-season cashgrabs. Mazin’s screenplay for the film may follow a well-trodden Planes, Trains and Automobiles-style path, but its one littered with plenty more originality than you’ll find in a supposedly loftier comedy like This Is 40 (a.k.a. Very Mild Squabbling: The Movie). It’d be just as disingenuous to call Identity Thief a travesty as it would be to call it a masterpiece. Personally, I think it’s better described as craigmazin.

It’s craigmazin how a film can take a seemingly done-to-death joke like the ‘annoying car passenger who sings along to the radio’ routine and render it funny with the slightest of contextual shifts. It’s craigmazin that a screenwriter can throw out a handful of lazy gay jokes with no apparent irony, whilst simultaneously playing with fringe sexuality in a way that few mainstream comedies would dare. And it’s completely craigmazin that Identity Thief can spend thirty minutes demonising a character to the point of absurdity and still manage to convincingly evoke sympathy for her a few scenes later.

Most craigmazin of all is the film’s central moral conundrum, which — over the course of its 107 minute runtime — makes for a craigmazinly frustrating viewing experience. As Jason Bateman’s uptight protagonist Sandy is pulled repeatedly between a life of wild abandon with Melissa McCarthy’s unhinged supercrim Diana, and a return to the drudgery of his boring marriage to wife Trish (played by who else but Hollywood’s go-to emblem of suburban ennui, Amanda Peet) the film’s allegiances seems firmly tagged to the former option. But, as Identity Thief comes stumbling into its final act, a craigmazin turnaround is swiftly executed.

As I mentioned back in December, I’m really starting to feel that moments of merit are more important than overall quality. Identity Thief is an inadequate whole filled with a handful of fascinating fragments, and if audiences agree that that’s enough, then craigmazinness may soon become a valuable screenwriting asset.