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Plot thievery apparent, but some appeal nonetheless

Movie: Identity Thief; Director: Seth Gordon; Studio: Universal Pictures; Rating: R; My finding: Two out of five stars.

“Identity Thief” is one of the least original and most predictable movies I have seen in theaters in a very long time.

The plotline, which is essentially a buddy road movie, is tired from being peddled through so many different titles that no one can even remember when it had first been done. And the laughs come from sight gags and awkward interactions that have been seen just as often. Still, in some ways, the movie is an effective comedy. The audience I saw it with howled with laughter at every joke and would shout out a funny line that had just been said on several occasions.

I never laugh while at the movies. Never. Even my favorite comedies of all time – which “Identity Thief” is far from being – usually only make me crack a smile at their wit or stupidity. But I rarely laugh. Surprisingly, I fell for this uninspired mashup of slapstick and physical comedy in ways I don’t want to admit. I giggled at least twice, and I laughed at least once.

That’s the power of talented actors when they are allowed to let loose in material that won’t restrain them to such petty things as purpose or meaning. And Melissa McCarthy is just such an uninhibited talent.

We all have our disgusting biases and I honestly didn’t want to like this woman, who in characters she plays is nothing if not sloppy and somewhat revolting in appearance and demeanor. But with each role in each film featuring her, she somehow manages to become even funnier, and steers my heart away from blink judgments a little bit more, most famously in 2011’s very funny “Bridesmaids.”

In “Identity Thief,” McCarthy plays a central Florida woman who has a rather interesting career choice: extreme identity theft. Her lively and “aw, shucks” voice works well on the phone as she calls up prospective victims and informs them that, sadly, their identity has been stolen – but that the credit card company has luckily caught the crime before it got out of hand. Having hooked them with her humble actions to save their credit rating, she asks them if they would like to sign up for the free identity-theft prevention program the company now offers.

Of course free things appeal to all, and Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Jason Bateman), who insists his name derived from Dodgers ballplayer Sandy Koufax is “unisex” and not “a girl’s name,” jumps right into the ploy. Bigelow happily gives her his full name, date of birth, Social Security number, credit number, and everything else she needs to do exactly the thing he thinks she’ll help prevent.

My initial harsh statements about McCarthy really come into play here. As “Diane,” which is one of many names the character uses throughout the film, she’s the type of person who doesn’t have friends, as a bartender trying to remove her from an Orlando-area bar describes her.

It’s this type of contempt, the movie seems to suggest, that may create a person who hates the world enough to fill their lives with a constant parade of material possessions and drunken nights at the expense of those she hates.

She’ll buy a whole bar a wild night on stolen credit so she can momentarily feel wanted.

That whole idea isn’t surmised from subtlety, as several scenes point out an inherent sadness in her. Other scenes show how much of a leg-up a little support can give her in life. That’s just the way this movie is: a raucous train wreck that goes up in hysterics and brings laughter, only for the writers to realize too late that there needs to be some character development. That sends the whole movie crashing down to faux-emotion.

McCarthy is bigger than this.

Despite her size she has a physical agility that conquers the stunts and hijinks almost every-other scene brings with ease. Just as easily, she does the seemingly impossible: creates a richness to a character who shouldn’t have anything. When she does something well or feels good about herself, we feel good, too, even though there is no logical reason for this to be.

Regardless, Patterson’s credit cards start to get rejected after Diane buys things as large as cars and jet-skis with them, and it couldn’t happen at a worse time in his life. His boss gives him one week to clear his name of arrest warrants and credit collapse or he’s fired from his brand new job where he’s set to make $200,000 more than he did at his previous one. So, off to Florida he goes to track down this monster who’s ruining his life.

That wouldn’t be enough for a big-budget comedy (which is top at the box office currently), of course, so they throw in two criminal-underworld types with shotguns who also come after her because she sold them shoddy credit cards. Also thrown into the mix is a skip-tracer with a bounty of $50,000 if he brings her in.

An aside: The skip-tracer is played by Robert Patrick, who is probably best known as the T-1000 liquid metal terminator from 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and maybe also for playing Johnny Cash’s unimpressed father in 2005’s “Walk the Line.” Any film that gives a job to beloved character actors, especially jobs playing grizzled and scary skip-tracers, deserves at least a little respect.

If it weren’t for the job Patterson has on the line, the whole trip would have been a disastrous financial nightmare, but the specifics of that statement make for the comedy, of course. The film just can’t let up on the redemption angle, but that’s the Hollywood way. Present us with the worst in life, and tell us all can be better if we open our hearts.

The whole concept of such fake happiness is nauseating, to be honest. It’s not that happy stories can’t be made and its not that so many of us aren’t so miserable that we need them to bring joy to an empty life. It’s just that happy stories shouldn’t be the end-all of cinema.

They can be so much better than this.

Do yourself some favors in lieu of watching this movie: Watch Bridesmaids to see what McCarthy is capable of, and watch the former Fox television show “Arrested Development” (which is about to have a brand new season on the Netflix streaming service) to see how well Bateman can play a responsible, regular guy who is thrust into absurd circumstances. Then watch “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” for all your buddy-comedy road movie built on awkward and miserable circumstances needs.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)