Melissa McCarthy's performance in Identity Thief made me cry. I wasn't really prepared for that kind of response. Almost every review I read about the movie panned it, although almost everyone praised McCarthy's chops, as well as the chops of Jason Bateman, her co-star. Identity Thief is truly a piece of crap, a retread of all kinds of comedy tropes (Planes, Trains and Automobiles, What about Bob, anything with Adam Sandler and/or Kevin James) that finds endless merriment in the overly obvious juxtaposing of freak and non-freak. The premise is uptight family guy gets his identity robbed by a morbidly obese sociopath who wears tacky clothes. These two opposing forces are forced together on a road-trip in order to prove something or other. Truly the whole plot is preposterous (you keep wanting Bateman's character to just say fuck it and call his bank and do what anybody else does when this happens: cancel his card and move on), and the machinations and motivations become so muddy you can't really tell what is what after a while.
And yet there's McCarthy making me cry.
I think it has something to do with how gungho she takes this character on. The titular identity thief is a total concatenation of stereotypes, a fat, lonely, greedy, mentally-ill hoarder who likes to punch people in their throats when they get in her way and who has a sadsack back-story that may or may not be true. McCarthy gives this cartoon a shadow-life with her eyes and her way of moving through space gracefully and authoritatively, as if she is dancing her way past the movie's cheap laughs in order to find a way to destroy your heart. This happens most intensely in a couple scenes for me -- one in which Bateman catches her holding his daughter's hand, and in another when we first meet up with her at a bar where she's buying everyone drinks. In both scenes, which bookend the movie, McCarthy conveys a sort of innocence that's based on an understanding that no matter how stupid the movie gets the main character she's playing is for real. McCarthy makes this freak a transcendent freak, a full-fledged heart-broken criminal trying to steal her way out of herself. In other words, McCarthy plays the character as a stand-in for all of us, so that Bateman's upstanding citizen seems like the cipher, when probably the movie itself was constructed to do the opposite.
Kathy Bates did the same thing in a movie called Misery back in the day. She invested all her abilities in making a fat, lonely, creepy, backwoods kidnapper/torturer into someone you could connect to on the most beautiful levels. I remember when I first saw that movie I was devastated, not because in the end she was vanquished but because her vanquishing seemed morally wrong. The plot of that flick is a Stephen-King potboiler about a romance writer imprisoned by his biggest and craziest fan, played by Bates. James Caan plays the writer, and he is intended as the movie's central figure, representing good common sense. So when Bates' freak takes a sledgehammer to his legs you're supposed to feel completely violated. However Bates does the sledgehammer scene, and all her other scenes, with such verve and attentiveness and truth you feel connected to her need to smash knee-caps. That's the common sense in this moral universe: kneecap smashing. Her transgressions became the norm, not because the movie wants it that way but because Bates does it that way.
The same thing happens in Identity Thief. And it's a joyous experience. Not because the movie is great, but because someone in it is greater than she should have been.