Film Reviews

Elvis Lives in The Identical - and so Does His Boring Twin

The Identical is Elvis slash fiction that could have been written by a spinster church organist. Its premise is intriguing: What if Jesse Presley, Elvis's twin brother who was stillborn at birth, was in fact secretly given to a traveler minister (Ray Liotta) and his infertile wife (Ashley Judd)? What happens next is shocking only in its banality. The adopted child (Noah Urrea in his youth, Blake Rayne as an adult) grows up to be a very nice boy. Somebody give this movie a peanut butter and bacon sandwich.

As in Elvis Presley's biography, the film starts with the birth of twins to a dirt-poor couple in the Deep South in 1935, but here the twin lives. Of course, director Dustin Marcellino can't come out and say The Identical is about The King. Here, the rocker has been redubbed Drexel Hemsley. His nickname is now the hazier, much less badass The Dream, which is still cooler than his long-lost brother, whom Liotta's preacher man christens Ryan.

That's where the feint ends. In real life, star Blake Rayne is a professional Elvis impersonator in Nashville. He looks like a cross between Presley and a carving on the prow of a ship: He's stiff with shellacked black hair and dreamboat eyes. When he sings, he sounds like an Elvis record played too loud on bass-heavy speakers. Instead of heat, he exudes a dopey puppy pathos. You don't want to pounce on him; you want to pat his head and offer him a soda.

Rayne fits the film, which is itself a cardboard cutout of a movie. All the rough edges of Elvis's life have been smoothed. There are no drugs in The Identical. There's no sex and barely any booze. But there's plenty of religion. Marcellino shoots the Depression-era scenes in black and white. The Identical switches to color the moment the second son, Ryan, gets baptized in a river. The boy's a believer, and he's been raised to join his dad at the pulpit. But he's quietly hoping God has called him to shake his hips onstage, where he undergoes an immediate personality change from drippy choirboy to charismatic gyrobot.

Rayne, here making his screen debut, is much more comfortable crooning than acting. Instead of making Rayne suffer a tricky double role, the film shoves Drexel in the background where he merely sulks, sings a few songs and speaks a few lines. This is Ryan's story, but Ryan is boring. He and his drummer Dino (Seth Green) play a handful of shows and then notice that his doppelganger Drexel is burning up the charts. They look alike, sound alike and both sing songs about boogie-woogie. (Since The Identical doesn't have rights to Elvis's catalog, the songs themselves sound modern and false.)

You might expect some interesting developments. Will Ryan panic that the music industry doesn't have room for two handsome white boys who sound black? (Make that three, since The Identical also refers to the real Elvis to prove to the lawyers that this film isn't about him.) Will they change history and form a twin act decades before Matthew and Gunnar Nelson? Will he kill Drexel and take his place? Will he at least try to meet him, or failing that, ask the woman who claims to be his mother if there's anything, ahem, he should know?

Alas, he does nothing. The film lacks a suspicious mind. It lacks much of anything. The script is credited to Howard Klausner (Space Cowboys) but there's a more powerful narrator calling the shots: God. Ryan doesn't decide his fate — God does. And in case we forget it, he's continually reminded by everyone from his mom and dad to his wife to a random dwarf who buys him a Dr. Pepper at a honky-tonk bar.

Elvis himself might have agreed. He once told an interviewer, "I don't believe I'd sing the way I do if God hadn't wanted me to." But, frankly, God makes a terrible screenwriter. We spend the entire film stuck watching Ryan stay in neutral, waiting for a sign. Halfway through, we're praying for some Old Testament plagues for excitement — Lord, make locusts descend upon Ryan's concert at the county fair! — but The Identical is New Testament schmaltz with our good-looking rocker wanting nothing more than to sing a few ditties and go home to his wife (Erin Cottrell). Even his temptations are piffle. When a promoter tries to make Ryan more marketable by insisting that he do a Drexel-only act, our hero replies, "It ain't always about the money," and the conversation is over.

At least Elvis was a man of fascinating contradiction: a generous glutton, a lothario who worshipped his mom like a saint, an angel-voiced hero forever battling his own public demons. He was every human frailty and triumph in a perfect package, which made him literally larger than life: Whoever you are, there's an Elvis that sings to you. The Identical gives us twice the Elvis and yet no Elvis at all — it can't admit that he was a god himself.

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.