I’m in Los Angeles killing time before a movie when I pick up a copy of the Atlantic and happen upon this headline: "Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?" The piece, by Christopher Orr, makes me a little irritated, not least because it gazes back wistfully on Pretty Woman, which Orr describes as full of “ascending optimism.” Well, it’s certainly full of something. Tempting though it is to engage yet again with the problems of Pretty Woman 23 years after its release, and to explain what’s wrong with an aspirational fable that pushes the idea that prostitution is a neat way of making some pocket money until Mr Right whooshes up to the kerb in his limo, I’m going to hold back.
Orr insists that the rom-com has not died so much as adapted, taking on new shapes, but then it has always done this; riffs such as the recent bromance trend, or the Yuppie screwball comedies of the 1980s, are merely period variations on a theme. To take but one example, I Love You, Man  is a perfectly sprightly movie where both rom and com emanate from the same source (one man’s panic over not having any male friends). You can read the article online here , where you also get the benefit of some savvy reader comments pointing out the myriad exceptions which defy the thrust of the feature’s headline.
And then Identity Thief , a wonderfully smart comedy, provides its own spin on the rom-com. Actually, it’s an amalgam of several genres and elements. It is partly an odd-couple/ buddy /road movie, with Jason Bateman as the hapless suit pursuing a fraudster (Melissa McCarthy) who has stolen his identity, maxed out his credit cards, landed him in trouble with the law and lost him his job. That she has also stolen his name (it’s a running joke that he is called Sandy, which everyone believes mistakenly to be an exclusively female name) makes the film’s subtext explicit. This alternative Sandy is the other side of him, the version stripped of all his advantages: female, overweight, no apparent taste or refinement, no friends or family, no money or possessions other than what she has stolen. While male Sandy frets over a new job with a $200K raise, female Sandy spends thousands of dollars of other people’s money buying rounds for strangers in bars to win herself some chums. Pretty serious stuff. All the best comedies are.
Where the rom-com element comes into it is in McCarthy’s brazenly sexual persona, which challenges her co-star Bateman not to find her attractive. (There is at least one scene, following her makeover, where he crumbles—and so do any doubters in the audience.) Popular culture rarely accommodates the idea of the democratic libido; in mainstream movies, TV and music, it is only young, gym-toned hardbodies who can love or lust. But in Bridesmaids and now Identity Thief, McCarthy plays ravenous and plays it straight. This doesn’t preclude the audience from laughing, but there is no sense that we are laughing at the absurdity of her desire—if anything, it is the embarrassment it causes others, and McCarthy’s lack of concern at this, which allows the comedy to flourish.
Near the end of the movie, female Sandy gets to meet male Sandy’s petite, elegant wife (Amanda Peet), and corners her in a woman-to-woman chat in which she reassures her that nothing happened between Sandy and her. “He did not lay a finger on or in me,” she says. The joke might once have come from the far-fetched idea that a slim and successful man could ever fall for a woman like McCarthy. But one of the points of Identity Thief is that there is less dividing us from our fellow citizens than we might think; in fact, the old comforts and snobberies are withering away in the long economic winter. The rom-com playing field is more level than ever.
"Identity Thief" opens in the UK on 22 March