"Identity Thief," a comedy starring Melissa McCarthy as a Florida scam artist named Diana, isn't always funny. Diana, a self-loathing liar, steals peoples' lives and then fills her own with food, shopping sprees and alcohol. The hundreds of people drinking on her dime are not her friends, a bartender informs her. "People like you don't have friends."
The darkness in this comedy is exactly what makes it work so well. McCarthy, poised to become the new John Belushi after playing the flagrantly flatulent Megan in "Bridesmaids," here emerges as something closer to John Candy -- an extra-large talent whose heart matches her size.
That's partly because "Identity Thief" is essentially a coarser, cruder update of Candy's "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," with Jason Bateman replacing Steve Martin as an uptight Denver accountant named Sandy Patterson. After Diana wrecks Sandy's credit and jeopardizes his job (John Cho plays his unsympathetic boss), he decides to bring her to justice himself.
Writer Craig Mazin ("The Hangover Part II") and director Seth Gordon ("Horrible Bosses") keep things loose, which is a nice way of saying the gags are hit-and-miss. Diana picks up a sexually adventurous admirer (Eric Stonestreet), Sandy finds a snake in his pants, and various hoodlums are played by Robert Patrick, Genesis Rodriguez and the rapper Tip "T.I." Harris. Gluing the whole mess together, though, are Bateman and McCarthy. Riffing, razzing each other and frequently playing rough, they make a sparkling comic team.
The jokes sometimes feel mean -- eewww, heavy people having sex! -- but McCarthy somehow always retains her dignity. Her best scene, in which Diana shyly dons a flattering dress and joins Sandy for a fancy dinner, is downright moving. "Identity Thief" certainly has its flaws, but McCarthy gives it a winning personality.
PLOT A mild-mannered accounts rep tries to take his life back from an obnoxious scam artist. RATING R (sexual content and language)
BOTTOM LINE It's hit and miss, and a little heavy on the hefty jokes, but McCarthy turns this comedy into a winner with a smart, funny and surprisingly touching performance.