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The middle of summer is when the surprises in publishing turn up. I'm talking about those quietly commanding books that publishers tend to put out now, because fall and winter are focused on big books by established authors. Which brings us to The Dream Life of Astronauts, by Patrick Ryan, a very funny and touching collection of nine short stories that take place in the 1960s and '70s around Cape Canaveral, Fla.

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'Identity Thief': Nearly Two Hours, Stolen

Feb 7, 2013
Originally published on February 8, 2013 7:09 pm

The new road-trip comedy Identity Thief — about a guy who confronts a woman who's wrecking his credit rating — is such a catalog of missed opportunities, it probably makes sense just to list them.

The setup: Sandy Patterson, who works in a Denver financial firm (and is not supposed to be mentally challenged), blithely hands over his Social Security number to a stranger on the phone who says his accounts have been compromised, at which point his accounts get compromised. No tricks, no subterfuge, no laughs — he's just stupid.

The follow-up: Sandy flies to Florida to persuade the identity thief to accompany him home, where he'll hand her over to police. He brings handcuffs in case she's uncooperative. No tricks, no subterfuge, no laughs — he just thinks she's stupid.

The star: Melissa McCarthy, who plays the title character — and who absolutely deserves a star vehicle after stealing Bridesmaids from her better-known co-stars — gets saddled with a script that subverts her gift for verbal improv by requiring her to throat-punch all comers just as conversations get started, and undercuts her comic timing with overstaged sequences in which she gets tackled, slammed, pinned, violated, abused, busted in the chops with a guitar, beaned with household appliances and rammed full-throttle by a car.

The co-star: Jason Bateman, whose deft way with sarcasm turned Arrested Development into must-see TV, is relegated to playing a clueless, sappily sentimental chump.

The villain: Terminator 2's relentless, stop-at-nothing T-1000, Robert Patrick, gets a part so precisely up his alley — a relentless, stop-at-nothing bounty hunter — it has to have been intended as a joke. But the joke gets shortchanged, because in a beard and a plaid shirt he's scruffily unrecognizable. (Not to mention easily sidetracked by comparison with two thugs who are gratuitously tracking the title character.)

The rest: Rapper T.I. — one of those thugs, shot and stuffed in a trunk (possibly for trying to imbue his lines with a bit of personality). Raven-haired beauty Genesis Rodriguez — his thug-ette partner, shot and stuffed in a trunk (possibly for not protesting when makeup artists made her look tough and plain). Harold and Kumar's John Cho — inexplicably cast as a straight-arrow banking exec who doesn't so much as blink when his offices are searched for drugs. Jon Favreau — amusing as a boss from hell for maybe 90 seconds at the top of the picture, and then gone for the duration.

The concept: Stealing someone's identity, while no doubt ghastly for victims, can be a comic goldmine in the right storytelling hands. Think Monty Python's Life of Brian, Chaplin's The Great Dictator, the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski — and onstage, everything from Charley's Aunt to The Comedy of Errors. Electronic identity theft offers a host of new possibilities, and to have almost none of them explored by writer Craig Mazin and director Seth Gordon in this uninspired trudge of a road movie is the biggest waste of all.

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The new road-trip comedy "Identity Thief" is about a guy who tracks down and confronts a woman who's wrecked his credit rating. It stars Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman. Critic Bob Mondello says credit card scams aren't the only rip-off in this movie.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Great concept for a comedy - really funny trailer - but you'll start counting missed opportunities in the very first scene when Sandy Patterson, who works for a financial firm and does not appear to be mentally challenged - as played by Jason Bateman - blindly hands over his Social Security number to a total stranger on the phone.

I repeat - he works at a financial firm, and he gives his Social Security number to a stranger. No tricks, no subterfuge, no laughs; dude is just not too bright. Not much fun in that. But his scammer is being played by Melissa McCarthy, who absolutely deserves a star vehicle after stealing every scene she was in, in "Bridesmaids." And when she's allowed to just riff, she's pretty wonderful; talking to a waitress in a diner, for instance, making up stories to embarrass Sandy as he's trying to take her to the authorities.


MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Diana) Walter's a fireman.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Oh!

MCCARTHY: (As Diana) Yeah it's OK, it's OK. You know, that pretty intense...

JASON BATEMAN: (As Sandy) She doesn't care.

MCCARTHY: (As Diana) ...accident last year, and he injured his male parts. They're just shredded down there and now, he can't work. (Starts to cry) He wants to fight fires, and he wants to pee standing up. Don't you want to pee standing up? I know you do. But he can't.

BATEMAN: (As Sandy) Please bring two soups.

MONDELLO: Fun, right? So why do you suppose the script keeps subverting her gift for verbal improv, by having her throat-punch all comers just as a conversation is get started? Seriously, over and over.


BATEMAN: (As Sandy) Now, I have a plan...

MONDELLO: And every time, she's then turned into a punching bag, busted in the chops with a guitar, beaned with household appliances, even rammed with an automobile at full throttle.


BATEMAN: (As Diana) Ow!

MONDELLO: The rest of the cast is also oddly misused. Why on earth would you have a master of sarcasm, like Jason Bateman, play a sappy, sentimental chump; or cast "Harold & Kumar's" John Cho as a banker who doesn't even blink when the police want to search his office for drugs? And casting Robert Patrick - who was "Terminator II's" relentless, stop-at-nothing T-1000 cyborg - as a relentless, stop-at-nothing bounty hunter, is so perfect it has to have been intended as a joke. But there's no punchline because in beard and scruffy shirt, he's unrecognizable. And the script makes him so easy to sidetrack that two stumblebum drug dealers can push him around.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: We need her more than you do. Better luck next time, old man.

MONDELLO: And, and, and - I mean, look, stealing someone's identity must be ghastly for victims. But in the right storytelling hands, it can be a comic goldmine. Think Monty Python's "Life of Brian," Chaplin's "Great Dictator," the Coen Brothers' "Big Lebowski"; and on stage, everything from "Charley's Aunt" to "The Comedy of Errors."

Electronic identity theft offers so many new possibilities for confusion and mortification. And to leave almost all of them unexplored, in a movie called "Identity Thief," is sort of - I don't know, criminal? I'm Bob Mondello.

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