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IDENTITY THIEF

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The ghost of John Hughes hovers over “Identity Thief,” and must be bemoaning how the winning combination of heart and humor he brought to “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” has itself been pilfered and perverted into the dismal concoction served up by director Seth Gordon.

The supposedly hilarious premise is that the life of Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), a account executive at a Denver firm, is turned upside down when he stupidly gives out over the phone the personal information that allows a conniving woman named Diana (Melissa McCarthy) calling from Florida to print up phony credit cards in his name and use them to destroy his finances. Picked up on warrant by a Denver detective (Morris Chestnut) over trouble the woman’s gotten into at a Florida bar, Sandy quickly convinces the cop that his identity’s been ripped off, but learns that the only way he can fix the situation quickly is to go down to the Sunshine State and bring the actual malefactor back to Colorado himself.

So Sandy’s off to Florida, where after some nasty knockabout slapstick he persuades the crook, a vulgar loud-mouth, to drive to Denver with him, promising her he won’t press charges if only she’ll clear him and save his job—and his happy married life with an adoring wife (Amanda Peet) and two darling daughters. Unfortunately, Diana’s in trouble both with the law and with an imprisoned mob boss (Jonathan Banks), which results in the pursuit of the unlikely pair by both a red-neck skip-tracker (Robert Patrick) and a couple of hit-persons (Tip “T.I.” Harris and Genesis Rodriguez).

Of course the cross-country trip is not without incident. There are numerous comically violent encounters with their pursuers—all of them tonally off-kilter and vaguely unpleasant. But since you can’t fill a feature with those alone, the script simply tosses in digressions to fill up space—a walk in the woods that leads to an encounter with a snake (again, so ineptly done that it’s more repulsive than funny), a sex scene between Diana and a horny cowboy-type, played by Eric Stonestreet, at a crummy motel (more gross than anything else). There are car chases and car wrecks, as well as scads of rough language designed to be naughtily amusing and, of course, the obligatory projectile-vomiting sequence (which at least occurs early on, so we don’t have to wait for it too long).

And needless to say, an important plot element is the gradual bonding that occurs between Sandy and Diana, which leads to them to be self-sacrificing, supportive buddies by the close. That necessarily involves inventing a schmaltzy sob back-story for the woman that ultimately wins Sandy’s sympathy, and supposedly ours. Certainly by the final scene Sandy’s adorable kids are treating her like Aunt Diana, whatever her real name might be.

In this case, though, that’s a hard row to hoe, because in McCarthy’s hands Diana is such an abrasive, obnoxious person, an attitude that persists despite occasional asides meant to show her as a long-mistreated old softie. The actress has been touted since “Bridesmaids” as one of the most promising screen comediennes, but she remains very much an acquired taste that’s easy to resist acquiring. Her shtick is obvious—a sequence in which she predictably screams along with pop tunes on the car radio (by now the cliché of cliches) is simply irritating, and her early bar-party sequence is truly embarrassing. In those cases (as in her recent turn in “This Is 40”) she (and her directors) certainly don’t seem to realize that in many comic bits less is more. Of course, she’s also expected to extract laughs from her considerable girth, which gets extremely tired after awhile (as in a gag when she gets exhausted running just a few feet, although later we’re told that she’s carried an unconscious Bateman to safety—consistency is of no matter here). Fat jokes, frankly, are no longer the guaranteed winners they once were.

As to Bateman, he basically plays straight man to his co-star, and mostly looks benumbed throughout. But one shouldn’t feel sorry for a guy who’s helped produce the vehicle that embarrasses him. Everyone else in the cast is either wasted (Chestnut, Peel, and Jon Favreau, in a cameo as Sandy’s nasty boss, and John Cho, in a slightly longer role, as his new one) or humiliated (Patrick, Harris, Rodriguez and especially Stonestreet). Behind-the-camera contributions aren’t much better, though they are better than the material deserves.

Lots of things get stolen in “Identity Thief,” but the biggest heist is of the hundred minutes you’ll forever lose watching it.

HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS

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The fairy-tale brother-and-sister pair who barely escaped that gingerbread house with their lives has grown up and is kicking some serious witch butt in “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” But that’s the only remotely serious thing in the silly, bombastic action extravaganza directed by Tommy Wirkola, whose previous picture “Dead Snow” was a slashed movie about a bunch of students stalked by Nazi zombies and is here working from a script he’s based on a premise not much more intelligent. It is, however, less brutal and bloody than “Snow”—and thus aimed at the adolescent trade.

It’s highly doubtful, however, that even the thirteen-year old boys who rejected previous attempts to turn old Grimm Brothers fables into twenty-first century adventures, like “Snow White and the Huntsman” or “Red Riding Hood,” will embrace such a goofy grab bag of computer-manipulated stunts, endless fights, creature effects and supposedly cheeky but definitely lame dialogue, especially as limply directed by Wirkola. Compared to the visual virtuosity and brash panache that Timur Bekmembetov brought to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” his work comes across as pedestrian.

As to plot, there isn’t much. After a prologue recounting the old story in ten minutes or so, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are re-introduced as twenty-something witch hunters boating lots of weapons and wearing duds that look like they might have been retrieved from the “Underworld” wardrobe department. They come to Augsburg, where a bunch of kids have been abducted, and after saving Mina (Pihla Viitala) from execution by the evil sheriff (Peter Stormare), they’re off to find out what’s afoot, assisted along the way by sweet-tempered lad Ben (Thomas Mann), who as quickly develops a crush on Gretel as Mina does on Hansel.

It turns out that the chief witch, Muriel (Famke Janssen) has abducted the children for use in a ritual, to be held on the night of the Blood Moon, that will also involve Gretel’s heart and result in her gaining some enormous power, though its nature isn’t entirely clear, at least not to this viewer. After what seems like an endless succession of battles between H&G and Muriel and her band of followers, everything winds up at a Witches’ Sabbath at which Hansel, Mina, Ben and a troll named Edward (Derek Mears, looking like a sallow version of Hellboy), wind up trying to rescue Gretel and the abducted children from Muriel and her band, using guns blessed with magic charms that blow the evil spawn of Satan to bits. It happens that Muriel’s plot is also connected with what happened to Hansel and Gretel’s parents (Thomas Scharff and Kathrin Kuehnel) many years before.

The movie is drearily repetitive, consisting mostly of battles in which the titular duo get tossed about by witches that they’re trying to capture before blowing them up somehow. Occasionally they get beaten up by the wicked sheriff too, though he meets with the obligatory gory fate as a result. There are, of course, periodic quieter interruptions in the action, especially involving Mina (who actually goes skinny-dipping with an injured Hansel) and Ben (who moons over the unconscious Gretel at one point). But the attempts at romance are half-hearted, and those that are meant to be humorous are even worse, mostly involving the inappropriate use of modern obscenities.

Perhaps things would have gone better were Renner less of a stolid stiff and if Arterton possessed any personality. As is it, however, they’re a dull pair. Mann has a boyish charm and Viitala is attractive, but they’re lost in the shuffle, and Janssen makes an unimpressive villainess, even when encased in gruesome makeup. She and her minions aren’t really much scarier than the trio of witches led by Bette Midler in the Disney bomb “Hocus Pocus,” which was of course a children’s comedy. The effects are frankly mediocre, with an overabundance of those tired “in your face” 3D moments, and the score by Atli Orvarsson (with an odd “supervisor” credit for Hans Zimmer, whatever that means) is loud and thoroughly forgettable.

It’s time this sub-genre of action fairy-tales was retired. It’s a hopeless cause, and filmmakers should just admit that and move on. As for the ending of “Hansel and Gretel,” which seems to suggest that the makers actually believe that it might become a franchise, one can only say that a sequel seems about as likely as “John Carter 2.”