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‘Identity Thief’ and the Problem of the Grotesque Female Character

New York ­— Watching Identity Thief, the new Seth Gordon road comedy starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, I found myself thinking a lot about the female comic grotesque. It’s easy, and safe, to space in and out of such abstractions during the viewing of Identity Thief — the story proceeds along well-worn tracks and can be rejoined without confusion at any time, while the chances of missing out on a big laugh are, alas, minimal.

On the current American movie landscape, female comedians working in the grotesque vein — most notably McCarthy, along with the suddenly everywhere Rebel Wilson — occupy an uneasy position between feminist trailblazers and preservers of the status quo. On the one hand, the fact that their extra-large bodies lie outside the narrowly prescribed realm of leading-lady desirability gives them the freedom to explore over-the-top, “unfeminine” behavior with glorious impunity. (Think of McCarthy expressing her raw animal lust to the air marshal played by her real-life husband in Bridesmaids, or Wilson defiantly reveling in her bulk as Pitch Perfect’s self-christened “Fat Amy.”)

On the other hand, the range of roles available to actresses like McCarthy and Wilson can be as narrow as the performers themselves are wide. Diana, the needy, amoral grifter who’s the title character of Identity Thief may be the most brazenly grotesque character McCarthy’s played yet.

It’s not even feminist theorizing to say that Diana represents femaleness at its most abject: She’s explicitly positioned by the story as the world’s most unappealing woman. (Hence, I guess, the purported hilarity of her encounter with equally abject Big Chuck. Two fat people having sex! Oh, my sides.)

Thanks to McCarthy’s abundant comic gifts and those of her equally ill-served straight man Jason Bateman, Identity Thief doesn’t leave nearly as icky a taste as it could have, but Gordon — whose Horrible Bosses I found similarly underscripted and flat — only taps into a fraction of his actors’ potential.

It would be easier to forgive Identity Thief its overfamiliar comic setups and shameless gag-recycling (someone is throat-punched by McCarthy approximately every 20 minutes, if the movie’s second half didn’t make such an abrupt about-face from soliciting our revulsion to begging for our pity. Worse still, the movie’s final scenes attempt to reshape the vulgar, anarchic Diana into something resembling an acceptable rom-com heroine. A makeover sequence approaches The Breakfast Club’s in its deep philosophical wrongness.

Diana submits to the ministrations of three catty department-store employees, who openly mock her appearance before beckoning her over and transforming her into a tastefully styled, slimmingly black-clad beauty. Now there’s a moment where a throat punch or three might have come in handy.

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Stevens (thehighsign) is Slate’s film critic.

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