Movie Takes

Identity Thief

Progressive opinion is badly conflicted by this Melissa McCarthy vehicle.

By 3.27.13

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There is a gratuitous scene in the middle of Identity Thief that adds nothing to the plot but that is meant — I’m just guessing here — to add to the humor of the thing. Our heroes, the eponymous Identity Thief who sometimes goes under the name of Diana (Melissa McCarthy) and the man whose identity she has stolen, Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), are now teamed up together, as is the natural way of comic criminals and their victims, and on the run from three different pursuers. Two of these, Julian (played by an actor, Clifford Joseph Harris Jr., who sometimes goes under the name of T.I.) and Marisol (Genesis Rodriguez), who are acting as agents of an unseen criminal to whom Sandy owes money, are also teamed up. Diana has recently had a comic sexual encounter with a man known as Big Chuck (Eric Stonestreet) whom she met in a bar in rural Georgia. Big Chuck turns out to be a real estate agent and Julian and Marisol visit his office pretending to be prospective house purchasers in order to pick up a clue as to which way Diana and Sandy have gone.

Got that so far? Big Chuck, taking Julian and Marisol at face value, explains to them that his little Georgia town is a "traditional community" and then, perhaps because he thinks — not without some reason — that they are rather dim, he explains to them that "traditional" means they don’t like black people and foreigners. Julian is black and Marisol, being unspecified Hispanic, is foreign — and black, as Big Chuck also explains, since his fellow Neanderthal devotees of tradition thereabouts regard any complexion lighter than that of the Narcissus papyraceus as functionally black. It was a bit of a disappointment to me that Big Chuck should turn out to be a racist — like, apparently, everyone else in town — since I had already grown used to him as a comic and rather sympathetic character who had recently lost his wife. But for some reason the film seems to have felt it needed to sacrifice him to make the point that "tradition" is bad.

Once again, it’s only a guess, but I wonder if Seth Gordon, who directed, and Craig Mazin, who wrote the screenplay, didn’t feel they needed to put this in lest the audience get any "traditional" ideas of their own about the inappropriateness (or worse) of Mr. Bateman’s knocking Miss McCarthy about, as he occasionally does when she attempts to escape from him by punching him in the throat. For the same reason, her blows are shown having a more painful effect on him than his on her. Famously a big gal, Miss McCarthy can obviously take care of herself and has no need of the protections afforded her by such an obviously outmoded tradition as chivalry. She even accuses Mr. Bateman, when he hurls a steam iron at her, of throwing "like a girl." Political correctness might chime with chivalry in condemning violence against women, but unlike the merely tradition-bound can clearly make an exception for hilarious violence such as this. As Alan Scherstuhl, the clearly conflicted reviewer for The Village Voice puts it, "I'm not going to argue that this man hitting this woman for laughs is some kind of a progressive triumph. But it is at the very least a victory for whatever is the opposite of sexism."

Yet isn’t "whatever is the opposite of sexism" progressive? And isn’t "victory" the same as "triumph"? Why is this reviewer trying so hard not to say what he is manifestly saying? Similarly, he is not so happy about the sex scene with Big Chuck and makes the point that Mr. Gordon’s camera must jump through hoops, figuratively speaking, in order to stay focused on Miss McCarthy’s head and shoulders and nothing else during what is meant to be an acrobatic sexual performance because he is a "sizeist" who thinks that naked fat girls (not to mention fat guys like Big Chuck) can’t be erotic — or even, more to the point, comic, as Miss McCarthy definitely is, so long as she keeps her clothes on. "What does it mean," Mr. Scherstuhl grumbles, "when Hollywood is more comfortable showing us a woman getting punched than that woman in bed?"

Golly, I wonder. But does he mean to say that he is more in favor of showing a (naked) woman in bed than that woman getting punched, which he thinks a progressive triumph (by another name)? I thought that was pornographic and thus exploitative of women. Or maybe it’s only exploitative of pretty, thin women, while fat ones are empowered by being allowed to strip off for the camera? I wonder if, in his view, the film-makers’ offense is compounded when we later see Diana transformed, with the help of a sympathetic gay hairdresser and an expensive-looking frock, into the sort of woman that even someone defrauded by her would never dream of striking, let alone flinging an iron at? That strikes me as a flagrant example of lookism, or the invidious doctrine that women are only worthy of male respect and admiration when they are all dolled up as what can only be described as "sex objects.”

What a letdown are Hollywood’s reliably lefty politics to the even more lefty Mr. Scherstuhl! The point is that those who are ever alert to the political implications of the movies too often get lost in such incidentals as these and so miss the main event. For it is tradition which also informs us that fraud is criminal behavior and that criminals are bad — a view that no one can long entertain around the delightful Miss McCarthy. Not only does she have in the end (spoiler alert!) a change of heart about her chosen way of life, but she looks positively saint-like in comparison to the wicked capitalist boss, Harold Cornish (Jon Favreau), who not only fires Sandy and most of his other employees but offers to buy them a copy of The Fountainhead so that "you will see why it’s good for everybody." Oh yes, and he tells the police that Sandy is a drug-dealer out of revenge for his joining a rival firm. No wonder that even Jason Bateman’s sympathetic victim thinks it OK to turn identity thief himself when Harold Cornish is the mark. The moral of the story is that, when Sandy puts himself in Diana’s outsized shoes, he learns to be more tolerant of her and her chosen (criminal) way of life. Sounds like another progressive triumph to me.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.