From IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT to MIDNIGHT RUN, Hollywood has seemingly worked every conceivable variation on the road comedy formula. Opposite personalities thrown together, forced to spend close to every waking hour with each other, driving each other up the wall in the process... it's a durable template, but rarely surprising.
So credit screenwriter Craig Mazin for attempting something slightly different with the two-hander dynamic in IDENTITY THIEF. While most films of this type set up with two flawed characters, Mazin has given the audience a very clear rooting interest. Jason Bateman's Sandy Patterson is a decent, hard-working businessman who plays by the rules, but can't get ahead because he lacks the requisite guile. When he's presented with the opportunity to start a new company with a group of co-workers who've also been screwed over, it seems like his adherence to principle is about to pay off. And then Melissa McCarthy's Diana blithely steals his identity and basically ruins him.
It's not simply that Diana is at the opposite end of the scruples spectrum from Sandy; it's that she's a coarse, repugnant and physically abusive nightmare of a human being. Her early, bar-trashing antics might be amusing to some, but I didn't find myself laughing much. Diana is the crass embodiment of American opportunism; it's her pursuit of happiness at the expense of anyone fool enough to fall for her scam. And the film very effectively props her up as someone worthy of the audience's intense loathing.
While the formula dictates that Diana must be worthy of redemption, it's hard to figure out how Mazin will effectively pull off that turn. Fortunately, he's got two things working for him: a bona-fide comedic genius in McCarthy, and his own, considerable screenwriting smarts. If you've any interest in the screen trade, you've probably listened to the Scriptnotes podcast, which Mazin co-hosts with John August. It's an entertainingly practical take on both the business and craft of screenwriting. Mazin's so good at breaking down what works and doesn't work, that it's fascinating to watch how he goes about imbuing Diana with genuine humanity.
That's one of several challenges Mazin faced with this screenplay. We talked rather candidly about these obstacles, the invaluable contributions from his two leads, and, finally, his work on THE HANGOVER PART III - which he promises is the end of the franchise.
Mr. Beaks: Walking into this movie, I only had the commercials to go on, so I was a little surprised by the opening few minutes. I was like, "Oh, this is trying to be something."
Craig Mazin: (Laughs) Did it actually get to *be* something?
Beaks: I think it did actually. There's one scene in particular that pays off rather nicely. But I want to start with the pairing. Obviously, there's a MIDNIGHT RUN and PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES dynamic here: both characters have their reasons. But we don't get to [Diana's] for a while. And until we do, she's just a dastardly person, while he is 100% sympathetic. First off, was it always a man and a woman?
Mazin: It was always a man and a woman for me. The script started its life as a spec screenplay written many years ago by a guy named Jerry Eeten, and I think it just sat in the warehouse RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK-style for a long time. But Jason Bateman was always attached to it, and always loved the idea. But at that point, it was for two men. That's pretty typical. Movies like this, it seems like studios can't look beyond "It's a movie for women," or "It's a movie for men." And then it can star only women or men. So it just never went anywhere. Then Jason saw BRIDESMAIDS, saw Melissa's performance, and said, "Wow, what if it was her?" And then I got the call from Jason and our producer, Scott Stuber. I thought she was the answer to why the movie should be made. I can't think of a two-hander comedy that is a man and a woman that isn't about romance. They don't end up together, and they're not supposed to end up together. There's not even a chance of them ending up together. It's just about two people. There was something fresh about it. Frankly, it was just a chance to write a different pairing. We've seen two men on the road a lot, and it was nice to write a pairing where people are acting so differently to the situation because of who they were and how they were.
Beaks: The idea that this wasn't going to be a romantic pairing is interesting, because by Hollywood standards...
Mazin: Go ahead and say it.
Beaks: Physically, because Melissa is a bigger woman, Hollywood convention dictates that we don't expect those two to get together. That is Hollywood, that is the way things are, that is our culture.
Mazin: So your question is: Is that why?
Mazin: No. I understand, and it's a good question to ask. But the answer is no, and here's why: it's not out of squeamishness or any sense of political correctness, but rather what the story wanted. The story is about a guy who is unhappy with who he is, and I wanted it to be about someone who is unhappy with who he is in a real way. Not in a way we typically see, which I think is a twentysomething or thirtysomething male who is unmarried and is looking for that kind of perfection. The truth is, I'm married, most of my friends are married, and our lives aren't perfect either. That beautiful storybook wedding isn't the answer to all of your problems. Sometimes, frankly, it's harder. If you are married, and you have children, and you have another one on the way, and you are making what my dad made his whole life, it's a struggle. It's hard. And it's hard not to start thinking about yourself as less than adequate, especially when you see the people above you making so much more and being able to provide more for their children, provide more for their wife, and not having to live in this weird fear that you won't be able to give them what they want. You start, as a man, to feel inadequate. I wanted to tell a story of that guy because I think there are a lot of guys out there like that. And that guy needs to be married. He needs to love his wife. That's what precludes romance more than anything else.
Beaks: I want to clarify that it's not specific to women. We've always had the heavy funny person, and we're rarely supposed to think of them getting the girl or the guy. And when you make that character a really awful person for a good chunk of the movie, it's even easier. There's that moment when Bateman winds up with the guitar and really smashes her. That got enormous applause in the theater. And it's because...
Mazin: She deserves it.
Beaks: Right. And the audience hates her. I can't remember the last time I heard a response like that.
Mazin: Well, Melissa is a very special person. She is special to me, and I think special in general. Melissa is someone who is able to be incredibly human, and human in a way that illustrates every possible human frailty, but yet you still want to love her. It's harder to imagine this kind of movie and this kind of character for a man because, frankly, men are a little bit more reprehensible than women. Maybe they're a lot more reprehensible than women. Forget what our instincts are, and just look at facts: men are vastly more violent and cruel than women. But on top of that, Melissa has a certain kind of humanity in her eyes; she has this depth of soul in the same way Zach Galifianakis does. I always say there are some characters that you want to be like, there are some characters that you want to be your dad or your mom, and then there are characters that you want to take home and take care of. She's one of those. So I knew I could go really far with how despicable she was, because I knew the second I was able to show her humanity, everybody would be on her side and root for her to fix herself. You can't do that without someone like Melissa.
Beaks: And she does pull it off in that restaurant scene.
Mazin: Good. I wrote a part that I knew she would do brilliantly, and she did it even better than that. I think people are going to be surprised. I think people are going to realize that this is a world-class actor. She is really good. And the moments I care about most in this movie, [director Seth Gordon] did a really great job of getting the tone just right. But, boy, did she commit! She puts tears in my eyes. It's pretty amazing.
Beaks: In that John Candy way. She has that rambunctiousness and generosity of spirit that he had. It's kind of overwhelming. He could go from being the worst annoyance to absolutely breaking your heart.
Mazin: Because you believed it. Because the truth is, I believe John Candy was a sweet, good man. You can't fake being a sweet, good man. You can fake being a jerk, and there have been some incredible comedic actors whose persona was and continues to be that of the jerk or pain-in-the-ass. It's hard to feel for them. Bill Murray, for instance, for a long time really struggled to have people feel for him. I remember when I saw GROUNDHOG DAY, I thought, "This is the perfect movie for this guy. Now I realize there is this sad human spirit to him." And from that point forward, he's just like godhead, you know? But Melissa was there from the start, and John Candy was always there. When John Hughes wrote PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, I can only imagine that he wrote it knowing what the ending was. The whole movie is about that, in the same way this movie is.
Beaks: And it works also because Bateman's character is trying so hard to do everything the right way. You set him up as a hard worker, a good family man who in a moment of distraction inadvertently gives away his entire life. It's plausible. And then you've got him working under Jon Favreau's character, who is just awful and arrogant and utterly incompetent. Who knows how he got this job: nepotism, whatever. But it's a very real situation that people can identify with. This isn't 1% versus the 99%. This is being principled versus getting away with it.
Mazin: The 1% and 99% thing is, to me, a bit of a red herring. The people I sympathize with are the people who are following the rules and getting hurt. Sometimes those people make a little more than other people, and sometimes they make a little less. It's not about the number; it's about their spirit and their intention. My dad was a public school teacher his whole life. He followed the rules, and the rules didn't really serve him that well. It was hard to watch at times. And when we were low on money, he just took another job. Guys like that... that's most guys. I really do believe that most American men want to be married, and they want to do right by their family and that life. And there's a pain there that no one talks about. Maybe it's because it's unsexy or it's not sympathetic or undramatic, but to me it's very dramatic. It's real. And to think that someone could come along, and, with a flick of a finger, knock that house of cards down is horrifying. But it happens all the time, and no one seems to care. We expect that the Jason Batemans of the world will shoulder that burden and suck it up. And I wanted to show how frustrating it is for somebody, but I also wanted to show that, in the end... you're okay, man! This is what the movie is really about to me. Don't think that just because you're struggling, you're inadequate. You're not. And that scene in the restaurant, that's what that's about. Someone needed to tell this man in a way that he believed, "You're great as you are." And it's an interesting arc as a screenwriter to say that the big change is that there is no change.
Beaks: I like that you do that scene that everyone expects in a movie like this, where she gets to put her con-woman skills to work and show him how to enjoy life as a high roller. You give him that moment, but then they immediately pay for it. And it's humiliating for him because it's simply not to be. Not that way.
Mazin: You don't deserve it. It's funny, I spent some time with a detective in the Beverly Hills Police Department when I was doing research for the movie. He hadn't asked me one question about the movie itself, but as I was leaving, he asked me, "In your movie... the identity thief... what happens to them?" I said, "Well, there's a lot of choices. We're still talking them through." And he said, "I think you should kill him." And I said "What???" He said, "I think he should die." Because this guy is dealing with victims of identity thieves all day long, and he hates these people. I get it. I don't think it's funny that people get away with crimes. In the end, you've got to pay for what you've done.
Beaks: Your film presents the absolute best-case scenario. Did you ever think about taking it in a darker direction?
Mazin: Well, it's a comedy, and comedies are allowed to be dark for as long as they want, at least for me, until the end. There is something to the joy of redemption and healing. I think the reason I like watching comedies, and I like feature comedies, is because they take people out of their world and plunge them into terrible darkness and trials by fire, and you're allowed to get as sick and twisted as you want on the way to healing. The whole point is it's not easy to get better, it's not easy to change, and it's not easy to fix your life. But in the end, I want it to be fixed. I want it to be good. My favorite scene in this movie is at the end. It's rare that you can say that, but the gift he gives to her and her response... you get a feeling that these people have been fixed in a real way, not a fake movie way. There is no storybook ending to this story. It's a human ending, and I like that.
Beaks: When she cracks that guard in the neck, I thought, "Oh, no, she just got another ten years tacked onto her sentence!"
Mazin: (Laughs) Yeah. That's one of those sacrifices you make to that last big laugh. But, you know, you figure there'll be a hearing, and they'll mitigate it somehow.
Beaks: Perhaps they'll find out that this guard was corrupt or selling drugs to inmates.
Mazin: Yeah! She was verbally abusive.
Beaks: Were you on set?
Mazin: Actually no. I love being on set, but while they were shooting I was writing [THE HANGOVER PART III] with Todd [Phillips], so I couldn't be there. I visited, which was great. I got to see the truck plow into the car. That was a cool day. I'm standing there with Robert Patrick and Melissa, and we're all like kids holding up our phones. It was so much fun. But I did work very closely leading up to shooting with Jason, Melissa and Seth - and then while they were shooting, we were on the phone constantly. I was rewriting ahead of them as things would come up. Seth has been an incredible partner. I've been with him in the editing room. And I make a point of saying this, but Jason and I really worked this story out together. It's great. Not every actor can do it. Not every actor can see a story for all the characters, and not just their character. He's a producer on the movie, but he actually is a producer on the movie. He did a great job. I have such a good relationship with everybody. We all cared so much about this movie - and I think it's because, as you said at the beginning, it's trying to be something. I love big laughs, and there are big laughs in the movie. The movie's there for you to laugh. But we wanted it to be about something that mattered. We wanted there to be a human relevance for the audience. I think we got there. It works for me!
Beaks: Is there something you can point to specifically as a Bateman contribution to the script?
Mazin: The throat punch. I think Jason said, "She should punch him in the throat." It was so evocative of a woman who was feral almost. If you're punching people in the throat, that means you've done it a lot. That's your thing. You know that it works. It was such a great way to think about her character as being out of control. I love that she's out of control. To me, there is something so funny and heartbreaking about someone who has no sense of who they are, and so they just do whatever they can to create human contact. But it's all fake. It's all lies. Her whole life is just lies designed to paper the fact that she is empty inside. For something like this to fix that... I thought it was important that when they started out that they really hate each other. And because of the circumstances of this, we could have these people hate each other in a way that they couldn't in PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES. It wasn't like John Candy ripped Steve Martin off. He was just annoying. But this woman stole. She ruined his life. And this guy is holding this thing over her. And, you know, broke her guitar.
Beaks: Yes. With her face. (Getting the wrap-it-up signal.) You mentioned THE HANGOVER PART III, so let's finish up with that. When we talked for THE HANGOVER PART II, I felt that the film's strength was its willingness to take everything we liked about the first movie in a much darker direction. Has there been an inclination to push further with this one?
Mazin: Todd and I never think in terms of "going further". We don't like to pile on, or make a point of "Look at how dark and shocking and sexual we can be!" However, at times this movie does things that you can't believe, that are incredibly audacious, and it is definitely a conclusion. It's a different kind of story we're telling, but it is a story that addresses something that has needed to be addressed over the course of the movies. There is death, there is tragedy, there is a thing that happens in minute two that is not to be believed. The movie is audacious, big and is a very satisfying conclusion. I'm looking forward to seeing it in a theater with everybody. The thing about Todd is that he is the most unapologetic, fearless filmmaker I know. He's just like, "Guys, I know it's going to be scary for a while, but just follow me." It's a pretty grown-up movie. It's out there.
IDENTITY THIEF hits theaters February 8th, 2013.