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“Identity Thief”: The McCarthy Era Begins

February 11, 2013

Identity Thief is not a great movie. It’s not even a very good one. But it may prove to be an historically significant one, because it marks the ascension of Melissa McCarthy as America’s first plus-size female movie star. Despite savage reviews—including one from ex-Gong Show judge Rex Reed (yes, he’s still alive) comparing McCarthy to a tractor and a hippo—the road-trip comedy costarring Jason Bateman opened to $36 million, topping even McCarthy’s breakout film, Bridesmaids. That’s an amazing figure, considering that much of the East Coast was snowed in, and many Southern Californians were afraid to leave home due to a rampaging cop killer.

Box-office reports indicate that Identity Thief cleaned up in the Midwest—the “flyover states,” as they’re derisively known on the coasts—where moviegoers (many of them female) are embracing the idea of a woman who owns her extra pounds. While not as masculine as her Bridesmaids character, whom McCarthy says she based on Guy Fieri, her Identity Thief alter ego is equally confident in her sexuality, making passes at Bateman and engaging in a gut (and bed-)busting sex scene with Modern Family‘s XXL- talented Eric Stonestreet, playing it straight for a change.

True, it’s a fine line McCarthy tiptoes upon—some could say she’s making herself the butt of cruel gags. But she throws herself into the role with such physical abandon that you can’t help but feel like she’s in on the joke. There’s a great tradition of heavyset male comics, from Fatty Arbuckle to Oliver Hardy to Lou Costello to John Belushi to Chris Farley to Kevin James. But there’s been no distaff equivalent. Mae West was zaftig, but standards of female beauty were different in those days. In recent years, Roseanne Barr got one shot at movie stardom—She-Devil, opposite Meryl Streep—and when that flopped, she was sent packing back to sitcomland. Ricki Lake didn’t last long after Hairspray (remember Mrs. Winterbourne? Neither does anyone else) and Rosie O’Donnell never made it out of the second banana/best friend ghetto (A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle).

With an Emmy for Mike & Molly and an Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids under her belt, McCarthy’s taking control of her own career. She will next team with Sandra Bullock for the cop comedy The Heat and she’s cowritten (with husband/Bridesmaids love interest Ben Falcone, who also makes a funny appearance in Identity Thief) Tammy, which will cast her opposite Shirley MacLaine as her hard-drinking grandma. Don’t be surprised if Identity Thief spawns a sequel, as the dry, deadpan Bateman and the raging-id McCarthy have the makings of a classic comedy team.

Showing no signs of the self-destructive personal behavior that ultimately brought down Arbuckle, Belushi and Farley, McCarthy may be settling in for a long ride as a movie star. In an era when Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling are also redefining the body image of TV leading ladies, McCarthy’s timing could prove to be perfect.

Are you a Melissa McCarthy-ite? Post a comment!

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