The Identical (2014) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic material and smoking
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Blake Rayne, Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Erin Cottrell, Seth Green, Joe Pantoliano, Brian Geraghty, Amanda Crew, Waylon Payne
Small role: Chris Mulkey
Director: Dustin Marcellino
Screenplay: Howard Klausner
Review published September 6, 2014
In the world of movie reviews, The Identical is what's known as a "howler." By my definition, a howler is a movie that is so bad, there is a good deal of enjoyment sitting in a theater audience who all eventually start to laugh at how truly inept, but in a funny way, the movie they're watching really is.
I have to admit to you, the reader, that I went into this film not knowing anything about the production, and throughout, I was struggling with whether the film is really just an awful movie, or whether it was brilliantly satirizing awful movies by replicating some of the worst of them, but in very funny and astute ways. As the film progressed through terrible scene after terrible scene, I kept waiting for a proverbial wink from the actors or filmmakers that would let us know, once and for all, that they're deliberately making a parody on Elvis flicks, but so keenly aware of its subject as to seem subtle in its skewering of the artifice of those movies.
But, nope, in researching this film, I am amazed to find that it has been made in earnest, and what I thought could be the most brilliantly subversive film of the year is shockingly just this bad unintentionally after all. While the originally intended audience of Elvis Presley fans and indiscriminate faith-based film lovers will either embrace it or disregard it, there is absolutely no question that lovers of bad movies, especially those who get together in large groups in order to have fun with them, will not only embrace The Identical, they'll likely give it an enthusiastic, rib cracking bear hug. Yes, it is so bad, but in the best way, it's like hitting the jackpot for movie hecklers.
The film is obviously patterned after the real-life Elvis Presley, renamed 'Drexel Hemsley' to avoid a lawsuit, who actually was a twin, but his brother was stillborn. The Identical imagines a scenario in which the twin was not born deceased, but was publicized that way because the parents, Alabama cotton pickers who couldn't afford to care for two growing boys, gave one up for adoption to an evangelical preacher, Reece Wade (Liotta, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), and his wife Louise (Judd, Divergent), who couldn't have a child of their own. Although the preacher wants his boy, Ryan (Rayne), to stay in the ministry, the boy's calling seems to be in music, and he eventually has success at being perhaps the best Drexel Hemsley impersonator out there, so perfect as to be called, "The Identical" by his promoter. But Ryan doesn't just want to remain in his estranged brother's footsteps; he wants to be the real deal himself as a songwriter. Is there room enough for two Dreams?
First-time feature film actor Blake Rayne (the stage name of Elvis Presley impersonator Ryan Shelton) plays a dual role as the 'Dream of Rock 'n Roll', Drexel Hemsley, as well as the twin brother he never knew about, Ryan Wade. He's actually a good likeness for Elvis (his beefier years, anyway), and acts just well enough to not sink the movie singlehandedly. The weirdest thing about the film is that one of the characters mentions that "there's only one Elvis," which means that not only does Ryan Wade exist in a world in which he is a dead ringer for Drexel Hemsley, but both Ryan and Drexel exist in a world in which they are dead ringers for Elvis -- an Elvis that we never see! And yet, no one makes the mistake of comparing them to The King, oddly enough.
The Identical is directed without any sort of knowledge about how to frame a shot by first-time feature film director Dustin Marcellino. Wrongheaded decisions abound, starting out with his use of de-colored black-and-white in order to show the early scenes of how the twins came to be separated into two different loving families. Despite much of it taking place in the 1930s-50s in the deep south, segregation doesn't appear to be an issue. It's a movie that eschews the notion of American racism, but yet depicts its African-American characters as stereotypical as those movies that came out in the times in which this film is set.
Not only does Marcellino not know the best way to shoot his scenes, even if it is a good-looking movie from a cinematography standpoint, he also doesn't manage to shoot his rather talented troupe of actors in a way that makes them seem like they are actually good thespians. If this were the only movie in which you saw the likes of executive producer Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Joe Pantoliano (Wedding Daze), and Seth Green (Without a Paddle), you would think they would never get cast in any further films of note, because they come off as completely amateurish here. They seem to be playing for camp, but Marcellino has put together the film as an earnest drama, so the acting and action are at odds, but it does lead to some gloriously unintentional hilarity throughout.
As the premise doesn't make sense, almost everything that follows also falls apart if viewed with any kind of scrutiny. First of all, Ryan Wade isn't just a guy who kinda-sorta looks like Drexel Hemsley, he is an absolute dead ringer. And yet, anyone who sees Ryan just thinks he resembles his twin; he's never actually confused for the world-famous superstar.
The music, while catchy in a kitsch-pop fashion, isn't the sort of stuff one might consider as the kind of stuff that would revolutionize the music industry the way Elvis had done when he burst onto the scene. Plus, there's too much emphasis on ballads, which sound too modern and bland to have ever been an Elvis Presley anthem. The film supposes that rhythm and blues is just in their genes, as Ryan Wade seems to have every bit the same musical talent as his more well-known twin brother despite having no musical training or shown practicing any of the Hemsley songs that he belts out in absolutely pitch-perfect fashion, complete with signature dance moves.
Some people have given The Identical the tag of being a Christian-themed movie, but while it does portray a preacher and his family, and it is relatively clean, it's not overbearing in promoting Christian values. If it is pushy in a way that's too obvious, though, it's in its Zionist attempt to promote pro-Israeli relations, as the preacher lights a menorah in his church and calls great attention to it, while both Ryan and Drexel wear a necklace with a (Jewish) Chai pendant that provides their sole spiritual connection.
The Identical is about as hokey as they come these days, so unless you're in the mood for a gaggle of laughs at its expense, you'd do well to keep your money in your pocket and not subject yourself to perhaps the biggest cinematic train wreck to get a wide release in 2014. I realize the makers of the film would tell critics, "Don't Be Cruel," but what else can we do when the stinker they've unloaded "ain't nothin' but a Hound Dog."
©2014 Vince Leo