A musical mash-up of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis biography and myth, “The Identical” plays like a failed faith-based “Inside Llewyn Davis.” And that’s the closest thing to a compliment it will get.
Built around a too-tall Elvis impersonator, Blake Rayne, it tells the story of fictional twins, separated at birth. One grew up to be Drexel “The Dream” Hemsley, a hard-drinking rocker who survived rockabilly, the surfing/Beatles-imitating ’60s into the paisley and puffy shirts glam rock of the ’70s. His twin, Ryan, raised by a preacher (Ray Liotta) and his wife (Ashley Judd) as their son, is pushed toward the ministry. It’s his life we follow, from his discovery of his singing voice (an “American Idol” gospel breakdown in daddy’s Tennessee church in the 1940s) to his refusal to take “the call” to preach to his discovery of African-American “boogie woogie rock ’n roll.”
Ryan hooks up with a drummer (Seth Green, straining to be funny) and a worshipful garage boss (Joe Pantoliano) and builds a career out of imitating the guy he can’t help but notice is his musical and physical dead ringer.
The opening when the babies are split up is filmed in black and white, set in Depression-era Alabama and notable for hurling Liotta at us as maybe the scariest revival preacher this side of a Swaggart. The shotgun shack where the babies are born is decorated with a menorah, conspicuous in the background. Hang onto that, kids. It’s called “foreshadowing.” Not that it foreshadows anything remotely important to the plot.
What follows is a parody of an Elvis musical. See young Ryan croon to his Army buddies, working in the motor pool. Watch him storm the stage at a miraculously integrated 1950s juke joint, and later at an impersonator contest. See him avoid drink and cigarettes even as he rebels (mildly) against his daddy’s Bible school wishes and pursues the fresh-faced prom queen (Erin Cottrell).
Rayne resembles a much taller version of Baby Fat era Elvis, and sounds enough like him to make you wish the made-for-the-movie drivel he sings was “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” or any real Elvis tune, even a bad one. For anybody familiar with the dozens of movies Elvis made, all that’s missing from the inferior songs/hokey dialogue/bad acting formula of a “Speedway” or “Clambake” is the fistfight.
But that would have implied conflict, and conflict creates drama, both of which “The Identical” lacks. Screenwriter Howard “Grace Card” Klausner’s dialogue is too corny to call corny. Rock ’n’ roll? “It’s just a fad.” Listen for the anachronisms, a 1950s mechanic preaching “pump up the volume,” a 1960s MC promising to “rock you like a hurricane.”
It’s wholesome, sure. They guaranteed that by focusing on Ryan’s story and not Drexel’s. Drexel was the one having all the fun, even if he was haunted by the dead twin (part of the Elvis legend) he doesn’t realize is still living.
The best you can say about it is that the established players – Judd, Liotta and Green – don’t embarrass themselves, and the vintage settings and cars look right even if details, in scene after scene, feel a little off. Check out the cheap schoolkids’ notebook used as a hospital register in 1960s Tennessee.
If they wanted to parody an Elvis movie, they succeeded. It’s every bit as misguided and maddening, almost “Identical,” you could say.