Identity Thief

There’s a story in the movie business about a wise old producer who used to applaud at the end of every movie because he knew how hard it was to make a movie, even a bad one. I don’t think this producer is alive today, but if he was, I’m convinced he wouldn’t applaud at the end of this film. ‘Identity Thief’ is my second zero star film of 2013 (the first being the horrendous ‘Movie 43’). I hadn’t given a single 2012 release zero stars (the last movie to receive this honour would be ‘The Human Centipede 2’ in 2011).

Jason Bateman plays a guy named Sandy Paterson and the movie thinks it’s hilarious that a guy’s name is Sandy. Things are going well for him until he’s duped on the phone by Diana (Melissa McCarthy) who has him believe that she is calling from a credit alert bureau. In reality, she is fishing for his private information, and once she has it, she creates a drivers license and credit card in his name and goes on a wild spending spree in Florida. Through a complicated series of circumstances, Sandy flies out to Florida with the intent of finding and returning Diana to Denver in the hopes that she’ll admit the truth and his name will be cleared. Of course, crazy road trip escapades ensure, none of which are remotely funny. This includes Melissa McCarthy being chased by inexplicable armed thugs – what do they even want from her? This is never explained in the movie.

What an incredibly stupid plot! Shouldn’t his credit card company have noticed something was wrong? How can the same credit card have a transaction take place in Florida and Denver within the same day? The Florida transactions are quite substantial – shouldn’t this raise a red flag? Aren’t we all forced to pay a monthly protection fee for each of the credit cards we hold? Is this the level of security we get in return? I expect to receive a call from my credit card company shortly for the $30 cheeseburger I purchased last night. 

‘Identity Thief’ repeatedly circles back to same joke about Jason Bateman’s character having the name Sandy. Each time this happens, he responds with “It’s a unisex name.” Yes, it is! It isn’t that feminine a name – there’s Sandy Koufax, Sandy Berger, Sandy Alomar Jr., and Sandy Ward to name a few. Now, if his name had been Margaret, I might have laughed the first time the joke was made. But, this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what doesn’t work about the picture.

Let’s not forget that Melissa McCarthy is a brilliant performer – she was (rightfully) nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar last year for her work in ‘Bridesmaids’. If there’s one good thing that can be said about Identity Thief, it’s that Melissa McCarthy just goes for it – she’s a fearless comedienne. But, the script has her going through the motions with its repetitive gags – for example, her character has a habit of punching people in the throat; I didn’t laugh the first time, nor did I laugh the ninth time this happened. If this role had been played by Jim Carrey, Vince Vaughn, or Will Farrell – they would be able to take their outrageous comic antics and run to the end zone with them. But with Melissa McCarthy in front of the camera, the filmmakers undercut her, larger-than-life physical comedic talents – every fifteen minutes or so, the script requires her to cry about her upbringing, her sad life, and about how she doesn’t really have any friends. First world problems. In any case, we as audience members know what we would like to see – more so than the studios; and I think one of the many tweaks the script could have used would be to have Melissa McCarthy remain unremorseful and corrupt throughout. After all, if the character had been played by a male actor, that’s how it would have transpired on screen.  I’m not being sexist – the screenwriters are.

As for Jason Batemen, this is his second collaboration with director Seth Gordon – they both worked on ‘Horrible Bosses’ previously (which I gave a rave 3.5/4 star review to). Bateman can play the corporate drone convincingly but I didn’t believe for a moment he would be willing to go on this crazy journey. He’s smart enough to know that this is a matter the authorities could deal with. Bateman, like McCarthy, is a likeable star – the script leaves them both are stranded in the middle of nowhere without any help in sight. These are two actors who should have been able to sense that this script was a stinker – can I really sympathize with them? To make matters worse, even the filmmaking is lousy. Gordon zeros in on these performers faces often; this telescopic method doesn’t give us enough space to actually see what is happening with these two actors. What we get is a game of cinematic Wimbledon with the camera shifting its attention between McCarthy and Bateman; why can’t we just see them in the same frame?

But, what do I know? Identity Thief is the second highest grossing film of the year so far – it’s brought in a total of $130 million and is among the leading films at the box office, even in its eighth week of release. This makes all of us a victim of an identity thief. I didn’t laugh once, either with or at these characters – I didn’t even want to laugh near them. Get the point yet? I didn’t laugh. ‘Identity Thief’ is a terrible movie – one of the worst moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had. With a runtime of 111 minutes, this felt as long as the 5-day road trip Bateman’s character goes on – it is such a slog. I couldn’t wait for this to end. If there was a bright spot about it, it was that I got to see this movie with someone pretty awesome. But, even with great company, I just can’t bump the film’s score to 1/2star.

Being a film critic sounds like the best job in the world – you get to see every major movie that is released, and write about your experience in a darkened, air conditioned room. Truth be told, the job of a film critic sucks sometimes – a movie like ‘Identity Thief’ is proof of that. During my review of ‘Movie 43’, I stated that my chapter in life as an entertainment writer has probably reached its terminal end. Luckily, I saw ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ shortly after and all was right with the world. Here’s hoping I see another great picture soon. Else, this could be the end. If so, it’s been a blast. QED.


Park Chan-Wook makes his North American debut with ‘Stoker’, which is currently in limited release. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Mr.Chan-Wook is the filmmaker behind the ‘Vengeance’ trilogy – these pictures include ‘Sympathy for Mr.Vengeance’, ‘Oldboy’, and ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’. ‘Oldboy’ was the most popular of the three and instantly spawned a vogue for all things Korean amongst stateside cinephiles. I happened to see ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Stoker’ on the same day and so I know that I’m already going to offend some moviegoers with this remark, but my honest reaction is this – I’d rank ‘Stoker’ higher than ‘Oldboy’ (which is currently sitting at #85 on the IMDB Top 250 List).

Why beat around the bush? I think this is one of the most chilling and disturbingly effective movies I’ve seen in a really long time. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a sullen high school student whose father dies mysteriously on her 18th birthday. On the day of his funeral, India discovers that she has an uncle she never knew she had – the stylishly-dressed Charlie (Matthew Goode). He has an uncomfortably creepy flirtation with India’s mother (Nicole Kidman) and people start disappearing. But ostentatiously.

As he did in ‘Oldboy’, Park Chan-Wook’s technical skills and showmanship are on full display here with his use of bold colour and aberrant compositions. We first see India on the side of the road and Mr.Chan-Wook shoots this scene from a low angle; her dress flows in the wind and there’s a freeze frame during a moment I shouldn’t describe (except for the fact that it filled me with giddily perverse anticipation for what was to come). But the imagery within the opening shot lets us know that this story is going to end in an awful, bloody mess. Take for instance another scene during a long, tense dinner; the camera roams in a specific manner – only the person with something to say can be seen within the frame. If not for the plate of food in front of their clenched forks and knives, this dinner table could easily be mistaken for a poker table – who will be the first to reveal their tell? Or a scene in which a hairbrush runs through the Nicole Kidman character’s hair which then transitions into a blusterous field of grass. Or the visceral use of sound during the sharpening of a bloody pencil.

One shot shows India lying on her bed, seemingly circumscribed by boxes of identical shoes (with each box containing a different shoe size). The grand piano is positioned in the front room – and all three central characters have their moment to play; such moments emphasize sexual dread and yearning. There are also the echoes of footsteps on hardwood floor, and the foreboding creeks along the basement stairs under the swinging lampshade. This is a meticulously designed picture with every detail in the frame being fully realized.  In this regard, Mr.Chan-Wook strikes a rare and delicate balance – but making his visual sensibilities appear outlandish yet restrained; gorgeous yet minimalistic.

In terms of the performances, the standout here is Matthew Goode – not to be confused with the rock singer, Matt Good. His character shifts from charming to creepy effortlessly. From the moment he appeared on screen, I knew there was something “off” about him and I couldn’t wait to find out what his deal was. Nicole Kidman has played this sort of damaged character with a bemused sense of self-preservation in ‘The Others’ and ‘Rabbit Hole’ and she is hauntingly good here too. And, she gets one showy scene towards the end when she lets her daughter India have it with a monologue about the impetus of parenthood. And I should credit Mia Wasikowska for picking mostly challenging roles – ‘The Kids Are All Right’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Albert Nobbs’. Her character’s arc of maturity, as uncomfortable as it will make some viewers, is so clearly defined by her performance. I have an enormous amount of admiration for her as an actress and can’t wait to see what she does next.

A word of caution – ‘Stoker’ won’t be for everyone. Certain scenes will have viewers walking, if not running out the exit door; such as a shower scene which shows a young girl masturbating (the scene is intercut with a grisly murder sequence).  Some viewers are going to see this, like ‘Oldboy’, as a celebration of brutality and violence. I didn’t see it that way – I saw it as an intensely eerie examination of the darker side of human nature. The idea that some people could kill without any hesitation or remorse (and that such people may have been capable of it at an early age) is an unsettling thought, but Mr.Chan-Wook makes his audience members feel uncomfortable from the get-go. I suspect those who are able to stomach the unsavory material will be in for an aggressively creepy ride.

There appears to be a wave of foreign filmmakers making their excursion into Hollywood; in the last few months, there has been Park Chan-Wook with ‘Stoker’, Jee Woon-Kim’s ‘The Last Stand’, and Juan Antonio Bayona’s ‘The Impossible’ to name a few. Of the pictures I’ve seen, I’m impressed by the fact that these filmmakers don’t sacrifice their artistic sensibilities with the shift to American moviemaking. They remain firmly grounded in what they believe cinema should represent regardless of where the film is actually produced. But this begs the question – are North American audiences ready for these kinds of artful thrillers? The box office numbers suggest otherwise; but, of course, this could be due to the marketing of these pictures (after all, they contain the star-power necessary to draw in a large crowd, but they failed to do so). In any case, my hat is off to the filmmaker who sets out to make a “great movie” as opposed to the “great movie at the box office for the weekend”.

‘Stoker’ is beautifully photographed and tension-filled; outbursts of violence are unexpected and so their impact lingers. It’s very much in the spirit of movies such as ‘Badlands’ or ‘Natural Born Killers’ making us believe that these brutal murders aren’t the result of monsters or members of the mob, but by damaged souls who are absent of a conscience. ‘Stoker’ examines the artfulness of violence whilst simultaneously ensuring that its human element remains intact. I can already sense that this is going to be a very divisive film with just as many audience members pointing their thumb way down as those pointing it way up. I fall into the latter category, and to me, this was significantly more than a 2-hour perfume ad. ‘Stoker’ is such an extraordinarily composed piece – one that won’t escape my memory any time soon. QED. 

21 & Over

Just this past Sunday, nearly 41 million American viewers tuned in to watch the 2013 Oscars. And despite people’s reservations about host Seth MacFarlene, most of us can agree that the Oscars were a celebration of some of the finest cinematic moments of 2012 (which was a fabulous year for cinema). And just days after the Oscars, Hollywood has decided to release ’21 & Over’ – a movie that celebrates youthful idiocy.

Here’s the story – what little there is. Straight-A student Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) and two best friends (Skylar Astin, Miles Teller) take Jeff Chang out for Jeff Chang’s 21st birthday. But, Jeff Chang has an important medical school interview the next day and Jeff Chang’s oppressive papa will be ready to pick up Jeff Chang at 7 a.m. for his interview. What was supposed to be a quick beer becomes a night of drunken humiliation, and utter debauchery. If you’re watching ’21 & Over’ in China or Hong Kong, you get a different story about a Chinese student who attends an American college and gets corrupted by our westernized partying ways.

Notice my overuse of the name Jeff Chang? You see, I thought if I said it over and over and over again, you would find it funny. Because the screenwriters of this picture seem to think so. Jeff Chang is the joke here as can be seen by the movie’s trailer. Can you guess how many times we hear Jeff Chang’s name being called out in ’21 & Over’? I lost count. Just once, couldn’t someone call him Jeff?

Assuming you’re watching the North American version of ’21 & Over’, you know exactly where this movie is going from the moment its characters and their situations are introduced. This is the directorial debut of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore – the screenwriting duo behind ‘The Hangover’ (which admittedly, I hated). We seem to be getting several of these crude R-rated comedies each year now. The problem is most are concerned with upping the gross-out factor; each film has to be more disgusting than the one that comes before it. Unfortunately, this often comes at the expense of the basic elements of screenwriting – you know, like, um, story and characters. And a note to all comedic filmmakers – never ever use shaky-cam. There is no need for a documentary-like “you are there” feel for a movie such as this. Please get a tripod.

There is nothing new here. This is the cinematic equivalent of concocting a recipe where the ingredients are far from other, far superior pictures. For example, the long-time buddy pair (one is a wisecracking horn-dog, the other is a nerd focused on the future) – ‘Superbad’. What about the strict, ethnic father who wants his son to practise medicine just like he did (without considering the alternative that his son may want something else for himself) – ‘Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle’? And what about the two blindfolded women who make out for the boys but get their revenge by forcing them to kiss each other afterwards – ‘American Pie 2’? ’21 & Over’ blends all these elements (and many more) together and the result is stale, unappetizing and hard to swallow.

As I mentioned before, there isn’t much of a story here. It is intended to be a series of vignettes – it’s all setup and payoff, setup and payoff. But, what’s at stake here? Are we worried that Jeff Chang is going to sleep in and miss his med school interview? Or that his father, Dr. Chang is going to be on the run for Jeff Chang and “honour-kill him” (as one character puts it). Given that Jeff Chang is passed out for most of the picture, the weight of the film lies on the shoulders of his two friends – this is a problem. There is no on-screen chemistry between the two and the script didn’t convince me (even for a moment) that these two would ever register as friends.

And if you’re going to be a raunchy, R-rated comedy – be a raunchy, R-rated comedy. The movie makes a 180-degree turn in its final act in a desperate attempt to give this mean-spirited picture some heart. But, these guys are jerks; I didn’t find anyone likable, and because I have no vested interest in any of them, I didn’t care about the life lessons they gained after this crazy night out. Worse yet, complications (such as Jeff Chang’s friends realizing that Jeff Chang is carrying a gun in his pocket) are resolved in overly-simplistic ways. Surely, this is a pretty serious issue, but ’21 & Over’ isn’t interested in addressing it in mature ways. The tonal shifts in the last act gave me whiplash.

Its primary focus is on grossing us out. And I have to admit, I did laugh a few times. But, there are significantly more misses than hits. I did laugh when Jeff Chang drunkenly yelled out that he was going to be 21 forever. But, for that one laugh, I had to later watch Jeff Chang munching on a tampon, believing it to be a candy bar. And then I had to witness two stoners strip a passed-out Jeff Chang, put him in a bra, and glue a teddy bear to his junk. And then, I had to see Jeff Chang run through the U.Washington campus like a screaming lunatic (and oh, that poor teddy bear). Your mileage may vary; there does seem to be an audience for fat jokes and vomit gags. But I’m so very tired of movies like these. So. Very. Tired.

The best thing that can be said about ’21 & Over’ is that it isn’t as abysmal as it could have been. And, well, at least it’s better than ‘Movie 43’. My suggestion is that you skip out on Jeff Chang’s invitation. Unless you personally know a Jeff Change. In which case you should definitely hang out with him this weekend – he has to be more likable than the Jeff Chang in ’21 & Over’. For sure. QED.