It was inevitable that reviews for the new Melissa McCarthy/Jason Bateman film Identity Thief would focus on McCarthy's size. In his already infamous review for the New York Observer, Rex Reed referred to McCarthy as "tractor-sized," which speaks more to his complete ignorance of farm equipment than McCarthy's appearance, and also referred to the actress as a "female hippo" who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success."
What Reed neglects to discuss is how, generally, the only career path for overweight women in Hollywood is some variation of "obese and obnoxious." There are exceptions, but they are few — and rarely, if ever, in the leading roles.
There are limited opportunities for overweight women to act, particularly in starring roles, without their size being a significant part of the character arc. The real shame of Identity Thief is the waste it makes of McCarthy's great talents. Despite the film's dismal reviews, most critics acknowledge her comedic talent and timing. Her efforts, however, come to little as Identity Thief's filmmakers waste no opportunity to portray McCarthy in a grotesque manner, relishing every chance to humiliate her with an ill-conceived script, half-assed direction, and a truly unfortunate wardrobe.
There's something to offend everyone in Identity Thief: racist jokes, gay jokes, the word "vagina" wielded as an insult. From the outset, McCarthy is playing "garish," wearing bright costumes that exploit her size. She spends other people's money as a means, we are left to conclude, of compensating for loneliness. Early in the movie, at a bar where she's buying rounds, the bartender tells her, "People like you don't have friends." It's the first of several painful moments that fall flat because they completely lack in nuance. As the movie progresses, McCarthy's character, Diana, is increasingly painted as lonely and miserable, vainly attempting to find some kind of connection in a world that has no desire to connect with her. This is, it appears, the only narrative the filmmakers can imagine for an overweight woman, and they are certainly not alone in their lack of imagination about what possible lives these women might lead.
Whenever possible, McCarthy's weight is used to elicit the audience's laughter and disdain. In one scene, she runs from costar Jason Bateman down the side of an interstate. After a few seconds, she stops, panting, seemingly exhausted — because fat people can't move, apparently.
Later, at a restaurant, there's a bit with McCarthy eating a huge plate of food followed by a sex scene with an overweight man named Big Chuck, because nothing's funnier, in this movie's reality, than fat people having sex. The farcical scene is meant to both repulse and amuse (certainly not to titillate). McCarthy and Big Chuck engage in something that barely resembles sex while Bateman hides in the bathroom, trying to block out the trauma of listening to fat sex.
In the end, Diana gets a makeover so we can see her "true beauty" and learn that fat people have feelings. But this coda is far too little, too late. So much damage has already been done. Though Identity Thief is billed as a comedy, the longer the movie drags on, the more it feels like tragedy — a mawkish portrayal of a lonely, hypersexual, overweight woman with no one in her life, who ultimately (SPOILER AHEAD!) sacrifices herself to a prison sentence so an attractive, acceptably sized family man can resume his perfect life with wife, children, and a $250K-a-year job.
And then we have the critical response to Identity Thief — and really any movie starring overweight women — which take these actresses to task for choosing the only roles available. In a typical review, the Fresno Bee's Rick Bentley notes, "It's insulting that McCarthy has to keep playing roles where comedy comes out of how she looks, her sexual appetite and pratfalls. She should have more comedic respect for herself." Unacknowledged is that if McCarthy had more comedic respect for herself, she likely wouldn't work. While a critic like Rex Reed was clearly way out of line in the insults he lobbed at McCarthy, the filmmakers' choices clearly encouraged such commentary.
There is always a cultural myopia in movies when it comes to the lives of people who exist beyond the Hollywood norm (i.e., white, extremely thin, and unbelievably attractive). This rigid narrative stubbornly refuses to allow people of other types to exist in movies as fully developed characters portrayed humanely and with dignity.
More often than not, the point of fat women in television or film is to be fat women. Even in the critically well-received Pitch Perfect, Rebel Wilson introduces herself as "Fat Amy" and does so, she says, "so twig bitches like you don't do it behind my back." Certainly, this is an amusing reference to a well-known defense mechanism and it puts the obvious out there. The line is funny, but is it necessary? Is it possible for an overweight woman to be a fully developed character who exists beyond or in addition to the realities of her body? These are questions few filmmakers are willing to ask or answer. Unfortunately, talented actresses like McCarthy and Wilson suffer because of this unwillingness.
While promoting her latest movie, Beautiful Creatures, Viola Davis told CNN she's tired of playing the maid. She expressed pride in her work in 2011's The Help but said she also believes that "people need to see an African-American in the 21st century integrated in the life of this town and family who's not in servitude." Fortunately for Davis, she has finally reached the point in her long career where she can decline roles with the potential to compromise her dignity.
As I watched Identity Thief, I couldn't help but think that the fat, hypersexual buffoon is the equivalent, for overweight actresses, of the maid or nanny for black actresses. It's a shame Hollywood has so little imagination, but we can, perhaps, look forward to a day when actresses like McCarthy can state that they're tired of playing this buffoonish role. Unfortunately, that day will not likely come soon. Identity Thief took first place in its opening weekend, pulling in $36.6 million. A sequel is, no doubt, already in the works.