Should Melissa McCarthy be thanking Rex Reed?

Before her comedy "Identity Thief" opened this weekend, it was expected to earn maybe $20 million, perhaps less if the blizzard nicknamed Nemo kept theaters in the Northeast out of commission all weekend. But then Reed, the New York Observer critic, caused a minor winter storm of his own with his review of the film, which went beyond mere dislike of the movie and McCarthy's performance in it to make sexist comments about her weight ("tractor-sized" and "hippo" were some of the colorful phrases he used). Suddenly, the movie wasn't just a raunchy escapist comedy to fill the February doldrums; it was a referendum on Reed and McCarthy, and on film criticism (was Reed just calling it as he saw it or demonstrating his profession's out-of-touch elitism and snobbery?) and body image in the movies (are performers like McCarthy or Kevin James genuinely funny and talented, or do we just laugh at them because of their weight?).

Well, the public weighed in (sorry!) with its ticketbuying dollars, and the result was success for "Identity Thief" beyond anyone's wildest expectations. According to studio estimates, it earned $36.6 million, making it the biggest opening of the (admittedly short) year to date. McCarthy 1, Reed 0.

How, then, did "Identity Thief" manage such an outsized victory? It couldn't all have been the Reed brouhaha, right? Here are some possible reasons.

There's a dearth of comedy in theaters right now. Aside from January's "A Haunted House" and December holdovers "Parental Guidance" and "The Guilt Trip," there are no other comedies at the multiplex. "Silver Linings Playbook" may be too dramatic to count. And don't get us started on "Movie 43," which no one liked, and which has already vanished from theaters just two weeks after its debut. So "Identity Thief" took well-timed advantage of a gap in the marketplace.

The blizzard wasn't as big a threat to the box office as predicted. The storm did shut down theaters throughout the Northeast on Friday night, but even so, studios estimate that the snowfall caused only a 10 percent dip in overall sales from what had been projected. So most people who wanted to see "Identity Thief" weren't deterred.

There was little else of appeal to grown-ups. Assuming you've seen all the Oscar hopefuls by now, your only other choice for new adult fare this weekend was Steven Soderbergh's "Side Effects," which earned an estimated $10.0 million, about what pundits had predicted. The pharmacological thriller got better reviews than "Identity Thief," but it was also certainly darker and less escapist. Plus, while it boasted Channing Tatum in a supporting role, it didn't have any big box-office draws among its leads (Jude Law, Rooney Mara).

Broad comedies with appealing performers can be review-proof. Most critics weren't as vituperative as Reed, but "Identity Thief" still earned weak reviews. But those weren't able to overcome word-of-mouth, or the clever marketing, with ads that made the most of the comic chemistry between put-upon straight-man Jason Bateman and loose-cannon "Bridesmaids" alumna McCarthy. That said...

Melissa McCarthy is a genuine box-office draw. Sorry, Bateman fans, but even after the success of "Horrible Bosses" (where Bateman was top-billed but was also just one of an ensemble of A-listers) and the failure of "The Change-Up" (which neither Bateman nor Ryan Reynolds could save), the comic actor remains far from proven as a box-office draw. On the other hand, "Identity Thief" marked the first time McCarthy was asked to shoulder a movie, and it's clear she was up to the challenge. The Oscar-nominated "Bridesmaids" breakout star also has a strong following from her Emmy-winning turn on TV's "Mike & Molly." Women especially find her appealing, which is one reason why studio exit polling found the "Identity Thief" audience to be 58 percent female.

Sure, some of those female moviegoers could have bought tickets just to spite Reed or to stand up for McCarthy, but to say his controversial review was the deciding factor is probably giving Reed too much power. With or without the bitchy criticism, there were plenty of reasons for people to go see "Identity Thief" this weekend. Or maybe just one big reason. Either way, McCarthy can laugh all the way to the bank.
CATEGORIES Movies