If you're an Elvis fan – heck, if you're a music fan of any sort – odds are you've heard one or two variations on the story of Elvis' long-lost twin. Elvis did indeed have a twin brother named Jesse, but Jesse died at birth. Even so, myths that Jesse may have survived persist. Maybe Jesse is still out there somewhere! Maybe classic Elvis was actually Elvis, but fat Vegas Elvis was actually Jesse! Maybe the two took turns being Elvis and never told anyone! The Identical offers its own variation on this particular myth, packing a series of tall tales and legends into a strange, soapy, Christian-themed inspirational film. As “what if?” scenarios go, this one seems just a notch less credible than Bubba Ho-Tep.
This version of the tale doesn't actually admit that it's about Elvis, but c'mon: it's clearly about Elvis. The story begins in the depression era, as William (Brian Geraghty, The Hurt Locker) and Helen Hemsley (Amanda Crew, Charlie St. Cloud) welcome twin boys into the world. Alas, times are hard, and William doesn't feel they can afford to raise two children. As such, the Hemsleys give one of their boys up for adoption.
Fast-forward some twenty years or so, where we find Drexel Hemsley (newcomer Blake Rayne) emerging as one of the most exciting rock n' roll artists in the country. Meanwhile, a young man named Ryan Wade (Rayne again) – who bears an uncanny resemblance to Drexel – is a preacher's son attempting to hide his love of secular music from his conservative father (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas). Eventually, Ryan determines to break out on his own and begin a new career as a Drexel impersonator, dubbing himself “The Identical” (and becoming rather popular in his own right as a result).
The biggest problem here – and there are many – is that the music is terrible. Since the filmmakers aren't actually using Elvis' name and don't have the rights to his songs (probably too expensive for a low-budget affair like this), the film provides its own original songs. How best to describe them? The sound varies from tune to tune, but as a general rule they sound like middling Elvis knockoffs written by a low-rent '80s R&B group. It would be one thing if they just popped up occasionally, but no: there are TWENTY-TWO original songs in the film, each and every one of them forgettable garbage. Well, one song called “Gypsy Man” is kinda catchy, mostly because it flat-out steals the chorus of “Ain't No Mountain High Enough.” Most of these tunes are permitted to play without interruption, perhaps because the filmmakers realized that there was only so much they could do with those whole “Elvis' twin brother survived” premise.
The second-biggest problem is that star Blake Rayne has zero charisma, and he's required to carry the film. Given that he's playing both Ryan and Drexel, Rayne is onscreen in almost every scene, but seems incapable of doing much more than merely looking a whole lot like Elvis. To be fair, Elvis wasn't much of an actor, either, but the guy had a certain undeniable presence. Rayne has a successful career as a studio musician and Elvis impersonator, but he had never acted in a movie before being cast in The Identical. Unless somebody gets an urge to make The Identical 2: Identicaler, it's unlikely that we'll see him in another leading role anytime soon.
The Identical is a faith-based film, and it awkwardly attempts to shoehorn a religious message of sorts into the mix. The message the movie delivers is something resembling the prosperity gospel peddled by Facing the Giants: live clean, love God and health, wealth and happiness can be yours (that applies to Ryan, of course - Drexel lives a wild life and achieves worldwide fame, but his later years unfold the same way Elvis' did). To the film's credit, it's less heavy-handed with its sermonizing than many movies of this sort (save for a politically-charged pro-Israel scene that comes out of nowhere). It's not like the religious stuff is entirely without real-life inspiration: Elvis certainly had a spiritual side, and there's an interesting film to be made about the inner conflict between the soulful church boy and the reckless rock n' roll icon. This isn't the film.
The only scenes in the movie worth salvaging are those featuring Ray Liotta and Ashley Judd as Ryan's adoptive parents. Liotta seems miscast at a glance – his persona hardly suggests “conservative southern preacher” – but the performance turns out to be soulful, complex and deeply human. Even when he's saddled with a pound of unconvincing old age makeup, Liotta seems real. He plays a man whose sternness is countered by good-hearted sincerity, while Judd tenderly essays a woman whose personality is largely conveyed through quiet smiles and telling glances. In a way, they feel like the discount version of the parents played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life (may God forgive me for comparing this film to that one).
This isn't a good movie, but let's be honest: it isn't any worse than most of Elvis' movies. Most of the films The King starred in were flimsy, underwritten vehicles designed to wring a few quick bucks out of a fan base that was more concerned with seeing their idol onscreen than with cinematic quality. Likewise, The Identical seeks to wring a few quick bucks out of Christian viewers more concerned with seeing their values reflected onscreen than with cinematic quality. In both cases, the target audience members get exactly what they want, but the average viewer should steer clear.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 2014