When Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935, he arrived into a house marred by tragedy – and the extremely recent kind, as his twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn just thirty-five minutes before the King of Rock and Roll made his first grand entrance.
What Dustin Marcellino’s vague and weird “The Identical” (vaguely, and definitely weirdly) presumes is, what if that didn’t really happen? The film is not a true Elvis biopic – no one in the film is named “Presley,” for starters – but “The Identical” so completely and so perversely pulls from the King’s own narrative that it’s impossible to see it as anything other than a cheap-shot biographical send-up of one of the world’s most famous entertainers.
“The Identical” stars Blake Rayne (aka Ryan Pelton) as both Drexel “The Dream” Hemsley and his separated-at-birth twin brother Ryan Wade. If you’re not familiar with Rayne/Pelton, the performer first made his bones as an Elvis impersonator – and apparently a very good one, because he looks exactly like the King. The path of Drexel mirrors that of the King to a hip-shaking tee: an “only” child who grew up close to his parents, Drexel’s talents turned him into an overnight sensation, the kind of star who dominated both stage and screen.
Yet, “The Identical” is more concerned with his brother, a preacher’s kid whose burning desire to sing and dance is only fueled (and, eventually, entirely at the mercy of) the big superstar who just so happens to look exactly like him. And sound exactly like him. And move exactly like him. (No, most of the people in “The Identical” aren’t very smart nor are they very perceptive.)
The early portion of the film is dedicated to exploring the impoverished days of the just-married Hemsleys (Brian Geraghty and Amanda Crew, who are both vastly overqualified for their respective roles), stuck deep in the Depression without much in the way of financial hope (we know it’s the Depression, because the film’s overbearing narrator hammers the point home repeatedly and because the early sections of the film are all rendered in muddy black and white). When Helen Hemsley gives birth to not one, but two baby boys, the added burden threatens to sink their fragile stability.
Papa Hemsley needs something – God, or a sign, or break, but just something – and he appears to find it when he stumbles into a revival meeting led by kindly (if overemotional) preacher Reece Wade (Ray Liotta, deeply miscast) and his barren wife Louise (Ashley Judd, who remains luminous throughout the ensuing madness). The Wades desperately want a kid, and the Hemsleys have a spare, so why not?
The logic of “The Identical” approaches “Saturday Night Live” levels of absurdity, and fans of the sketch comedy’s nineties-era “Bad Idea Jeans” fake commercials will find an unexpected new entry in the feature film.
The Hemsleys believe that they are putting baby Dexter Ryan into the very hands of the Lord – the Wades are really just a surrogate – and eagerly offer him up for a chance at a better life. The Wades take baby Dexter (who they begin calling by his middle name) and get the heck out of town, bent on starting a new life where nobody knows they’ve got a baby that isn’t theirs – least of all little Ryan himself.
As Ryan grows, his affection and talent for singing, dancing, and just generally entertaining people becomes more and more obvious, boggling his shy mother and baffling his dad, who wants nothing more than for his son to follow in his God-loving footsteps. The film is principally focused on Ryan’s own struggles to reveal the truth of his desires to his parents, who seem weirdly unconcerned with telling their own child the most important truth of all.
The Wades – despite being people of God, despite the film being sold as a faith-based tale – never seem to wrestle with the weight of their secret. Even when Drexel begins to emerge as an omnipresent superstar, both Reece and Louise treat it as a mild annoyance, rather than a full-scale disaster. Perhaps their lack of concern isn’t as bizarre as it sounds on the surface, because the very sweet and very stupid Ryan never exhibits even a fleeting moment of wondering if there may be some kind of connection between himself and the famous guy who looks just like him.
Rayne is certainly a solid stage performer, and even though the film’s original songs are deeply lacking and sound like the bad Elvis knock-offs they are, he manages to sell the performance elements of both Drexel and Ryan. His acting chops aren’t nearly as believable, but he’s given precious little to work with here, and weak scripting from Howard Klausner (“Space Cowboys”) and poor direction from newbie helmer Marcellino don’t help matters. The music-heavy second half doesn’t zip with much pizzazz, and even the film’s many dips into song-and-dance fail to keep it moving along with anything resembling style. By its third act, things have flatlined.
As Ryan tries to carve out a normal life for himself, Drexel’s star just keeps rising. Eventually, the truth of the film’s title is revealed – Ryan, bent on performing in any manner possible, hits the circuit as a Drexel impersonator, one affectionately dubbed “The Identical.” This embarrassing and weird turn is never played for pity, but that doesn’t lend the film an air of optimism or joy – it just makes everyone look deeply uninformed.
There’s little momentum in the narrative, and little sense that anything will ever come to a head – for better or worse – and the film is instead a horror show of indignities heaped on Ryan, a character so well-intentioned and blissfully ignorant that audience members will want to hug him, even as they also want to laugh at him. If “The Identical” is about revisionist history, its overall message is “maybe don’t do this.”