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Bad Movie Tuesday: How Did Identity Thief Steal So Much Money?

July 9, 2013

Identity Thief movie poster

People love Melissa McCarthy. Her groundbreaking work in Bridesmaids made her a bona fide box office star and was a revelation for several reasons. It gave us a larger than life woman who was in charge of her surroundings, embraced her sexuality and loved puppies. She laid the groundwork for Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy in the sleeper hit Pitch Perfect and she is the only reason Identity Thief made money.

Identity Thief is bad. The critics didn’t like it (20% Rt) and audiences thought it was rotten (58%). However, it collected $135 million at the box office. Nobody seemed to like it yet it swindled the audiences cash over a period of several weeks. Here is how it fared from February 8th-March 10th (35, 27, 14, 10, 6 million). The first week drop off was unprecedented.  I recently wrote a piece about correctly predicting word of mouth hits. Identity Thief does not fall into the criteria of any of the films I mentioned. It is mean, scattershot and features Jason Bateman unnecessarily hitting Melissa McCarthy in the face with a guitar. Instead of being nice the characters are archetypes ranging from emasculated, insane, brutish and depressingly sad.

McCarthy works her butt off in the film. She falls, dives, swears, throat punches, runs slowly, cries, has an amazing perm and ends up redeeming herself. However, she is one of the most depressing film characters in recent memory. She is cartoonish to the point where her bones must be filled titanium yet has a fragile psyche due to some childhood trauma and abandonment. She wrecks lives, is desperate for attention and is ultimately redeemed in a cringe worthy manner.

To top off the cartoony realism the plot is absolutely incoherent. You will say What? Huh? When? Who? What? Really? No? Yuck. I will let Roger Ebert explain it.

Thanks to an idiotic premise involving Jon Favreau as the world’s worst boss, Morris Chestnut as Denver’s dumbest cop and John Cho as the world’s worst friend, it’s up to Sandy to make his way to Florida, capture Diana and bring her to Colorado. Then it’s up to the screenwriter to find ways to keep Sandy and Diana on the road together for a series of wacky escapades, when all Sandy has to do is pick up a phone, dial the authorities and say, “Hey, you know that woman who stole my identity and has committed hundreds of felonies? Got her!”

Ebert normally gave movies the benefit of the doubt. In my sleeper hit post Ebert gave Paul Blart: Mall Cop a positive review because he liked the nice characters. Ebert wasn’t an angry reviewer yet he saw through the zaniness of Identity Thief. Intelligence and practicality are sacrificed for throat punches, car chases and “Sandy” jokes.

Why did audiences flock to this film? Why did it hold up so well the second weekend? Box Office mojo explained it’s success like this:

From its clearly articulated, relatable premise to its broadly-appealing leads, the movie feels like it came off some kind of “comedy hit” assembly line, and Universal is reaping major rewards so far.

Essentially, the movie boiled down to people thinking it would be fun. On paper the teaming of Bateman and McCarthy is inspired and worthy of further exploration. Thief reminded me of the soul crushing Due Date. The film had a hot cast (Downey Jr. Galifianakis), was bashed by critics (39%) yet still cleared the 100 million dollar mark. Both of these films instilled faith in the cinema going public that they couldn’t be all that bad.

Alonso Duralde of The Wrap agreed by saying:

Identity Thief the kind of cast that makes audiences ask, “How bad could it be?” before proceeding to answer that very question.”

Thief’s director Seth Gordon (who best film is still King of Kong) had a similar critically and audience reviled hit with Four Christmases in 2008. The cast was hot at the time (Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon) and those famous people carried the film to $120 million. Four was absolutely soul crushing yet had such an amazing cast people went to watch it. A year later Couples’s Retreat with Bateman, Favreau and Vaughn went on to make $109 million with a abysmal 11% RT score. These movies made money because of the great casts but imagine how much money they would have made if they were good. Also, they hurt the long term marketability of the stars. Nowadays, Vaughn’s comedies are not doing so well with Dilemma, The Watch and The Internship all under performing.

People went to watch Melissa McCarthy do her thing in Identity Thief and instead had their time and money stolen. McCarthy’s latest film The Heat is doing well so all is forgiven. However, in order for McCarthy to retain her box office clout she needs to pay close attention to what made her famous in the first place. Bridesmaids will not be duplicated anytime soon but it did lay out a nice blueprint for success. It put characters first and built the gags from there. A silly character is not funny because they are silly. Characters are funny because you like them.

Don’t watch Identity Thief. Search out The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters. Cherish Bridesmaids.

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