Pop Prof #6: Should bad movies get credit for trying?

Welcome to Pop Prof, a sometimes-feature in which a Matinee Culture writer explores disparate but interesting aspects of pop culture. Today, Pop Prof asks if we should give bad movies, like 2013’s “Identity Thief,” any credit for trying to be something and failing.

I recently watched “Identity Thief” for the first time. It wasn’t very good or very funny, but for some reason it continued to come to mind several days after I saw it. Though it’s uneven and full of problematic jokes and jarring tonal shifts, there was something about it that I found oddly compelling, something that somehow made it more notable than a “better” movie done in a more competent manner.

Am I silly to ponder on such a throwaway film for a long period of time, or is there something there? Should bad movies that try something receive some recognition for their ambition, or should they be consigned to the scrap heap of their less-inspired brethren?

I’ll provide some background from those of you who haven’t seen the film. The movie opens with beaten-down accountant Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman, playing a man who is very sensitive about his name’s gender ambiguity) finally coming into some financial success. He has a growing family to provide for, you see, and he wasn’t getting paid enough by his jerk of a former employer (Jon Favreau, making the most of his one scene to ape Kevin Spacey from “Horrible Bosses”).

Things are looking up for Sandy when his identity is stolen by Diana, Melissa McCarthy’s crass, amoral wild child who compulsively buys jet skis and frequently gets kicked out of bars. Through a series of plot contrivances too convoluted to explain, Sandy determines that he must travel from his home town of Denver to Winter Park, Fla. in order to bring Diana to Colorado authorities himself. He doesn’t know it at the time, but Diana is also being chased by a rugged bounty hunter (Robert Patrick) and two racially stereotyped gangbangers (T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez). Hijinks ensue.

This is a weird movie, very unlike the highlights shown in its trailer. There are large portions of the movie that are purposely bereft of jokes, and the jokes that exist are primarily slapstick and/or juvenile (two that get run into the ground repeatedly: Sandy’s name sensitivity and Diana’s propensity to punch people in the neck). When the jokes aren’t landing, the tone wildly fluctuates between maudlin and dire, and the film’s various subplots often seem disconnected from the main narrative – most of the gangbangers’ scenes, for example, are not shared by any of the other main characters, and the pair is arrested in the movie’s climax without ever interacting with Sandy and Diana.

I did not enjoy watching “Identity Thief.” So why was I so fascinated?

I think there are two reasons. The first is that I am very interested in watching or experiencing weird pieces of media. It’s why I like watching SNL even when the sketches are bad and why I kept watching The Office after Steve Carell left. Watching two people shoot a man with bull tranquilizer and try to slide his bubble-wrapped body down a flight of stairs isn’t exactly quality viewing, but it does provide a certain “what were the writers thinking?!” vibe that “good” movies and television don’t often offer.

The other reason is that there’s something going on underneath “Identity Thief’s” surface. Though the film’s problems are legion, it’s also somewhat a victim of its own marketing, as director Seth Gordon clearly wasn’t going for a straight-up R-rated romp. The film’s travelogue setpieces and annoying character who isn’t quite what she seems are evidence of a desire to make a film in the vein of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” – a couple of scenes practically dare you not to compare them to John Candy’s revelatory self-analysis. Though the movie’s plot choices are highly questionable, it’s clear everyone involved wanted to make a movie with heart, and the film’s ending avoids some of the easy compromises movies make when they like their characters too much. It’s still bad, yes, but I don’t hate it the way I hated “Now You See Me,” which has much better production values but no brain or heart, just a smug sense of self-satisfaction and a misplaced idea of which characters are worth rooting for.

I’d never defend “Identity Thief,” but I dislike it a lot less than a movie made with cool indifference. Is that worth anything, or should I just move on to better fare?

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