The Identical is the sort of film that makes you wonder: can a film be considered inspirational when it has no discernible message? For a film funded by the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, with a preacher as a major protagonist and the tagline “If He is in your dreams, nothing can stand against them”, it contains nothing that could reasonably inspire anyone, or even validate their faith. It’s a ridiculous film, one of the biggest wastes of a premise I can think of it, one of the most truly pointless films to ever attract (somehow) a cast this good.
I’m going to spoil the fuck out of this movie. I don’t even care.
Did you know that Elvis had a twin brother who was stillborn? Well, the basic idea of this film is: what if that twin hadn’t actually died?
The film begins in media res for no reason, with
Elvis Drexel Hemsley (Blake Rayne) riding in his limo in 1972, watching the cotton fields of the South roll past as he drinks whiskey tragically. He then sees field workers from decades earlier, a couple of whom are, I think, meant to be his parents.
I’d just like to point out that, less than a minute in, the film has ripped off The Man Who Fell to Earth, which is a great film which you all should see. I just felt I should mention that.
Anyway, in 1935 Alabama, William and Helen Hemsley (Brian Geraghty and Amanda Crew) have married and plan to start a family, which the narrator cheerfully informs us was a terrible idea in the depths of the Depression–but you know, love. Anyway, work is scarce, and when Helen gives birth to twins, William has no idea how he’ll provide for them. Going to a tent revival, William meets the Rev. Reece Wade (Ray Liotta), who talks about miracles and explains that he and his wife Louise (Ashley Judd) are looking for a miracle of their own; they have been unable to have children.
William suggests that the Wades adopt one of his sons, thus allowing him and Helen to devote their resources to raising the other. Helen resists this, and the Wades are slow to embrace it, but they finally agree to do so, agreeing that the adopted son will not know of his true parentage until after the Hemsleys have passed away. The Wades name the boy Ryan, and as he grows up, he shows an aptitude for music, but Reece intends that he should become a preacher as well.
c. 1953, the adolescent Ryan (Rayne) is sneaking out at night with his friend Dino (Seth Green), going to local honkytonks and listening to the “devil music” (though Ryan is responsible and never drinks). Ryan and Reece butt heads over this, and matters come to head one night when Ryan and Dino sneak out and are joined by a pair of teenage girls, one of whom, Jenny (Erin Cottrell), immediately hits it off with Ryan. Ryan and Dino have been practicing their own music, and Dino arranges for Ryan to perform at the bar that evening, but the performance is quickly broken up by the authorities, and Reece forces Ryan to join the Army the following day.
Ryan’s singing ability helps him skate through his time in the Army, and after his discharge he enters Bible college. He’s distracted, however, when he discovers the music of Drexel, who’s become a worldwide star. Though their resemblance is frequently remarked upon, no one seems any the wiser. He realizes that he does not “hear the call”, so to speak, and tells Reece that he’s left Bible college. Reece is extremely unhappy with this, but does not argue the point further.
At one point, working as a courier, Ryan goes to a nursing home where Jenny is working, and although she tells him she’s in a relationship, she’s clearly still fond of him. Noticing that Drexel’s/his mother is staying in said nursing home, he sneaks into her room and sings a song of Drexel’s, apparently her favorite. She whispers his birth name, Dexter, and passes away. Although her death profoundly touches Ryan, he still does not suspect the truth. He gets a job with mechanic Avi Hershberg (Joe Pantoliano), who urges him to not give up on Jenny, and finally they (yes, they) serenade her and beg her to get a cup of coffee with him. Although she again cites her boyfriend, we cut to her and Ryan getting married. (More on this bit later.) Although they are seemingly unable to have children, their marriage is otherwise a blissful once.
In 1967 (seven years pass without any noticeable change), Ryan is encouraged to enter a Drexel (now nicknamed “The Dream”) sound-alike contest, which Dino heads the band for. He wins easily, rising through the levels of the contest, until he finally reaches the finals. Drexel attends, and Ryan sings the same song he sang to their mother¹, and Drexel tells the judges, “There’s your winner”. (He has no inkling that Ryan might be connected to him.) Ryan wins, of course, and is soon signed by an agent, Tony Nash (Waylon Payne), to sing Drexel’s songs, billing himself as “The Identical”. He becomes hugely popular.
A rift develops between Ryan and Tony when he decides to start writing his own songs, and going freelance, he tries to sell his own songs, but he is only offered to sell them so Drexel can perform them, and he rejects these terms. (I forget exactly what happens after this point, so forgive me for the gap.) Some time later, Drexel dies in a plane crash, and at that moment, Ryan collapses, and while he is otherwise unhurt, he feels lost and confused, and becomes disheveled. (A mildly scraggly beard is the extent of it.) After an argument with Reece leads to him suffering a heart attack, Ryan, while searching for his medicine, finds a letter which reveals the truth about his origins.
After learning that Reece will pull through, he sets off, encountering an old associate of Drexel’s (Danny Woodburn), who informs him that Drexel was Jewish on his mother’s side, explaining the Hebrew necklace he wore (which Ryan also wears). Ryan travels to their birthplace, and visits the grave of his brother, next to the grave that he supposedly lies in. A much older William (Chris Mulkey) arrives and mourns over the graves; Ryan reveals his identity, and they share a tearful embrace.
Ryan returns home and revives his musical career, performing both his and Drexel’s songs, but never revealing, outside of his family, the truth about his identity.
The Identical is a failure on so many levels that it’s difficult to know where to begin. I’m actually tempted to focus on the positives first. And why not?
First off, as much flak as he (and the film as a whole) have received, Blake Rayne’s performance is actually not that bad. He’s not as charismatic as the role requires, but he has an affable sincerity, and his likability makes some of Ryan’s more tiresome qualities tolerable. Rayne’s IMDb page reveals that he’s an Elvis impersonator in real life, that his real name is Ryan (meta!), and that he’s 40 (which, he looks much younger than that, like a mixture of young Elvis and a dash of Brendan Fraser–or maybe Joaquin Phoenix). I’m not sure if he’ll have a film career beyond this–this is his first screen credit of any kind–but if he played his cards right, he could be a decent B-movie lead or character actor.
Secondly, although the period detail is generally pretty terrible, kudos to costume designer Karyn Wagner. The costumes, while a little too clean to be wholly convincing, were designed and/or selected with care. I don’t know if she just lucked out in finding vintage clothes or what, but the people are generally dressed pretty appropriately.
Lastly…it’s harmless. That’s pretty extreme damning-with-faint-praise, but compared to the ugliness of something like Transformers: Age of Extinction, one can appreciate a film that seems to have good intentions. They pave the road to Hell, of course, but I at least felt a decent level of sincerity on the part of the filmmakers.
Now, for the shite.
Again, this film has no clear (or even, as far as I can tell, obfuscated) message. What we’re supposed to take away from this story is genuinely a mystery to me. Some have made the case that the film espouses the idea of trusting in God, but…I don’t see how the film conveys the message, even if it were intended. At the end, Ryan resumes his career as “The Identical”, gets his own music out there while also playing the music of his late brother, but never tells anyone outside of the family the truth about his origins. Even if the inspirational upshot was that Ryan got to do what he wanted and seemingly lived happily ever after…why does he never reveal the truth? It’s not like he wouldn’t be corroborated by William Hemsley, assuming he still lived.
Perhaps he felt he would be seen as an opportunist? But he’s a damned impersonator, a willing fake–how is that not opportunistic? (Unless you brand it as “homage”, I guess.) Did he think it would hurt his adoptive family? They seem pretty understanding. The film also neglects to say what role the elder Hemsley played in his long-lost son’s life after that, but given how messy the narrative is, I shouldn’t be too surprised. (Fake home movies during the credits show that Ryan and Jenny had kids after all–so yeah, unless they adopted and the film was extra-inept at communicating that, it just contradicted itself) But really…what’s the message? It’s like that running gag in Cow & Chicken–“Remember what Mom always says: never run into a burning school auditorium”–the message applies to so specific a demographic that for the average viewer, it’s just baffling.
Structurally, the film is also pretty sloppy; Dustin Marcellino’s direction doesn’t help, but it’s Howard Klausner’s script which really does it in. The film’s sluggishness is underscored by its lack of a point; it’s 107 minutes, but this story could’ve been told in 85, and probably even less. Almost every scene goes on longer than it needs to, and that’s not mentioning the scenes that are totally extraneous; one sequence (no doubt requested by the MJAA) discusses the Six-Day War and describes it as a miracle, but it has no impact on the film before or after. It’s some of the most gratuitous message-making I’ve ever seen.
Whole characters have no reason to exist; why is Avi part of the film? You could have combined his and Dino’s characters and made the film that much neater–or maybe you couldn’t, and my hazy memories are just fucking with me. But neatness is clearly not a priority here, since the film takes forever to get where it’s going, which happens to be not much of anywhere.
And, of course, the film breaks a cardinal rule of doppleganger filmmaking; there’s never any actual confusion as to who is who. The one time the two brothers share the screen, they never even speak to or touch each other. The question of identity is never played with, no one mistakes Ryan for Drexel (merely noting the resemblance), and neither brother is any the wiser until near the end. It’s a incredible waste of an idea, unparalleled in modern cinema to my knowledge.
For a period film, the period detail on hand is incredibly erratic. When William goes to Reece’s tent-revival early on, the banner inside the tent was clearly made in 2014; posters and calendars of Drexel that the characters own look totally inauthentic; at a 1967 concert, music is played that’s clearly in the style of the mid-70s. Again, the costuming actually looks all right in this regard. But beyond that, the film does a pretty poor job of setting the scene.
Oh, and how about that music? A ton of original songs were written for the film, mostly by Jerry and Yochanan Marcellino. None of them are particularly memorable; I can’t really do much better than quote Jordan Hoffman’s review in The Guardian:
Despite an attempt to play this as a period film, as soon as the music strikes up, any pretense at capturing the late 1950s or 1960s is lost. The instrumentation and recording quality is far too modern. But – and here’s the really hilarious part – it isn’t modern enough to be “today”. It sounds like a throwback to a cheap cruise ship from 1995. No grace in this Graceland.
Before I forget, I have to mention the serenade scene. In the romcoms of days gone by, this might have played better, but in 2014, watching a man–our ostensible hero–badger, nay, harass a young woman into going on a date with him, comes off as just a little troubling. It gets worse when she says she has a boyfriend, and Ryan replies “Well, he’s not here singin’ love songs to ya!” And when Avi joins, imploring her to just get “a cuppa joe” with Our Hero, the creepiness factor goes off the scale. And then the cops show up, and Ryan says he won’t leave until he’s arrested or Jenny agrees to go out with him.
We cut to them getting married, and she says, “What can I say? That was one good cup of coffee.” Her former boyfriend is, of course, totally forgotten about, and why shouldn’t he be? He’s not our hero.
Though I’ve mentioned Rayne’s surprisingly not-terrible work, he’s not given ample support. Liotta (who was an executive producer, poor bastard) hams it up horribly at times, and although at other times he seems to be giving it his all (he does put some effort into aging believably), it’s just not a good performance on the whole. Ashley Judd’s performance is most notable for her not aging at all for most of the film; a good 20 years pass in the story before a few wrinkles and a change of hairstyle are applied to suggest that she, too, has grown older. Beyond that, Judd doesn’t really stand out that much; she’s the supportive mother and doting wife, and she doesn’t bring much pizzazz to the table here.
Cottrell (who looks sort of like a poor man’s Kristen Bell) plays pretty much one key throughout, that of the mildly spunky Southern girl who resists the hero until she inevitably gives in; she’s folksy, but her delivery never sounds genuine, and she comes off as faintly embarrassed by her presence and by the film, or like she felt she was performing for an audience of children.
What possessed Seth Green to make this film (other than pathetic desperation) is beyond me, but he seems totally out of place here; his energy is just all wrong for this sort of material. Maybe he was trolling us? And Pantoliano is…I’m not really sure how best to describe his performance, other than “inane”. He clearly knows just how bad of a script he’s working with, and how pointless his character is; can you phone in mugging? I think that’s what he does here. Geraghty isn’t good, though he’s not really in it enough to humiliate himself; Woodburn just evokes memories of my beloved Watchmen.
All these talented people, all these resources, assembled for the sake of one of the most wholly pointless fables I’ve ever seen. Certainly for a film that had a budget ($16 million, says Wikipedia), and had wide distribution (though it tanked utterly), it’s one of the most inconsequential dramas I can recall. Some have predicted a future for it as a camp classic, but honestly, it’s too boring to really merit that. It’s just a useless waste of a film. That it means well is about all that keeps from hating it on general principle.
¹I think he does this; I don’t remember every detail of the film precisely, but I’m fairly certain he sings that song.