There are some who would argue that it doesn’t matter if a comedy is “good” so long as it makes you laugh. I disagree with that, but let’s follow this train of logic for moment. I laughed three times at Identity Thief, the new road trip movie starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, and only one of those laughs was the direct result of the movie actually being funny. Identity Thief is a whopping 112 minutes long. Now, let’s be conservative and say the movie only attempted about one joke per minute. That’s 3% funny, and 97% just awful (rounding upwards). But that’s not criticism, that’s just a percentage. The only way we’re going to get anything positive out of Identity Thief is to explain “why” it’s not funny.
And to do that, we’re going to have to talk about torture porn.
Identity Thief is torture porn. We’ve been using that term wrong for years. In films like Hostel and Saw, we do see a lot of torture, and often in excruciating detail, but at least one character – the character being tortured – isn’t having any fun. Although you’re allowed to enjoy the movie, you’re technically not supposed to want to see human beings getting brutalized, because no matter what their sins are they don’t deserve to mutilated to death. That’s not “porn” to me. When you’re watching porn, you’re supposed to feel pretty good about the experience, at least until it’s over and the good old-fashioned guilt kicks in. The films we traditionally call “torture porn” are supposed to thrill you, shock you, and terrify you. Maybe, on an intellectual level, you’re entertained by the cleverness of the death traps, but if you’re physically or emotionally getting off on Elisha Cuthbert’s suffering in Captivity, you’re technically doing it wrong.
But you’re supposed to feel pretty good while watching Identity Thief, even though functionally it’s the same basic experience as Wolf Creek. A decent human being falls prey to a sociopath who spends the entire film cruelly destroying his life, his reputation, his dignity, and even his body. But we’re supposed to laugh at his misfortune, even though the only reason we could reasonably have to find it funny was if he had somehow invited this punishment upon himself. There’s no justification for our hero’s torment. He’s a reasonable, moral human being, a good husband and father, whose worst “crime” – for most of Identity Thief, at least – is lying to a woman who destroyed his life through her own systematic and infinitely more dehumanizing modes of deception, and who feels no remorse whatsoever for her actions.
You see, things are finally looking up for Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), who put up with his humiliating boss for years but has just been offered a promotion at a new firm run by his equally disenfranchised co-workers. But Diana (Melissa McCarthy) has stolen his identity, maxed out his credit cards and even gotten herself arrested under Sandy’s name, annihilating his credibility to prospective clients and potentially dooming the job that could have ensured the financial security of his family. Because of some Kafka-esque bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, Sandy decides that his best course of action is to track down the culprit himself and drag her back to his hometown where she can be arrested on the charges lobbed at Sandy, and thereby clear his good name. They meet up, she repeatedly punches him in the throat, and then they eventually hit the road, pursued by a psychologically damaged bounty hunter (Robert Patrick), and two professional hitpersons (Genesis Rodriguez and “T.I.”) who have no impact on the story whatsoever after the first 30 minutes.
From there, Sandy suffers countless indignities and various forms of physical violence that, in reality, would either drive him to justifiable homicide or drive him to justifiable death, because that's what happens when your windpipe gets crushed over and over again. But it’s a comedy, so people can get hit by cars at full speed, clearly bounce their neck off the windshield and then literally run away unscathed. In theory, that should make the violence easier to accept, but there’s so much cruelty involved that even the physically harmless scenes seem more unforgivably brutal than Cannibal Holocaust.
For some unknown reason, or perhaps just because McCarthy was so popular in Bridesmaids, Seth Gordon’s Identity Thief sympathizes with Diana more than Sandy. She’s lonely, she never had a family, she only assumes the identities of others to make herself appear more superficially whole than she really is. Boo-hoo. Lots of antisocial bullies have personal justifications for their actions, but Diana has a whole two-hour feature film to pat her on the back for it. We’re supposed to like Diana because her monstrous, unforgivable behavior has a tragic backstory, even though by anyone’s standards she’s old enough to be entirely responsible for her own actions, and fully aware of their terrible repercussions. Forgiving Diana only enables this kind of emotionally and physically abusive behavior. Identity Thief plays like somebody’s counter-argument to The Bully Project, and it’s just as abrasive and ugly as that makes it sound.
Identity Thief is not a funny movie, but just saying that is not enough. There are very good reasons why it’s not a funny movie, having little to do with the cast (they’re trying so hard, they really are) and more to do with a poorly developed concept that wallows in human misery and superficial snap judgments when a simple tweak here and there could have made it palatable, at least. The next time you torture someone on-screen, and ask us to laugh at their misfortune, make sure they’ve done something to at least “kind of” deserve it. That’s the difference between real comedy, and something that could only get a rise out of Nelson Muntz.