‘Identical’: Elvis has left the building

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Elvis Presley, the transcendent star of early rock ‘n roll, had a twin brother, who was stillborn. This fact was twisted around and used as the premise for an incongruous, faith-based film, “The Identical.”

“The Identical” involves Dustin Marcellino, a first time director; a fictional protagonist and his twin brother, both portrayed by Blake Rayne, an Elvis impersonator making his screen debut; and an independent studio called City of Peace, which had never made a feature film. Their aggregate inexperience becomes evident in “The Identical.” However, the biggest problem with the film is a horrendous, cliché- ridden screenplay. It was penned by Howard Klausner (“Space Cowboys”), who isn’t a neophyte.

“The Identical” kicks off in 1935, during the depths of the Depression era. Twin boys are born to William Hemsley (Brian Geraghty) and his wife Helen (Amanda Crew). The impoverished couple is struggling financially just to make ends meet.

One night, William is visiting a traveling tent show. There, an itinerant preacher, Reece Wade (Ray Liotta) is delivering an impassioned sermon. In it, he reveals that, despite their repeated efforts, he and his wife, Louise (Ashley Judd) have been unable to conceive. William rationalizes that he is financially unable to raise two children. William decides to give one of the twins to this Man of God and his wife. William extracts a promise from the minister that not to tell the boy that he is adopted until after both of his biological parents have died.

Reece names his adopted son, Ryan, and raises him to follow in his footsteps and become a minister. As he approaches adulthood in the ‘50s, Ryan (Blake Rayne) visits a honky-tonk roadhouse with his best friend, Dino (Seth Green, who just turned forty, but is nevertheless still cast as a teenager). Succumbing to his father’s persistent prodding, Ryan enters the seminary. There, he demonstrates skills at sermonizing. However, Ryan doesn’t feel the calling. Despite his father’s vehement opposition, Ryan drops out of seminary school to pursue a career in the newfangled world of rock ‘n roll.

Meanwhile, Reece’s twin brother, Drexel Hemsley (also Blake Rayne) becomes a rock ’n roll superstar. As Drexel’s face becomes plastered on album covers and he appears on nationally-televised shows, Ryan notes their striking resemblance. However, in the film’s inane screenplay, Ryan attributes this to a sheer coincidence.

Here is where the film really becomes totally bizarre. Ryan enters a contest, sponsored by a local radio station, designed to find the most convincing Drexel Hemsley impersonator. At this point, the film subjects the viewer to a litany of unconvincing and untalented Drexel wannabes. The problem is that they are all actually obvious bad Elvis impersonators. Then, Drexel launches into an excellent rendition of a Drexel hit. Adding to the confusion, Drexel shows up at the contest and tells the judges that Ryan should win. Apparently, these dunderheads couldn’t figure this out by themselves.

An ambitious agent, Tony Nash (Waylon Payne), is in the audience. He signs Ryan up as a client to perform a show in which he and a back-up band perform covers of Drexel hit songs. Ryan and the band become a moderate success, touring the state fair circuit. The screenplay throws in another twist. Ryan grows tired of doing this copy cat schtick and wants to perform his own original tunes.

During much of the film, I assumed that Drexel Hemsley was a stand-in for Elvis Presley, albeit with a revised name. There were far too many striking similarities to conclude otherwise. To begin with, the lead actor, Blake Rayne, bears an obvious resemblance to Presley. This is accentuated by the fact that the Hemsley character sports Elvis’ distinctive pompadour. He certainly wasn’t cast, based on his weak acting chops. Moreover, the plot closely parallels Elvis’ life. Drexel is born to a poor white couple in the Deep South; becomes a music superstar, replete with a controversial hip-swiveling dance style; in the early days of rock music; is drafted into the army, where he becomes a generic soldier rather than joining Special Services and doing his tour giving concerts; becomes an actor in Hollywood musical (here called “Sunrise Surfing” in lieu of “Blue Hawaii”); and then dies prematurely.

However, late in “The Identical” the film begins repeatedly and explicitly referencing Elvis. So, in the conceptual universe of the film there is Drexel “The Dream” Hemsley, a fictional character, whose career trajectory mirrors the real-life Elvis “The King” Presley. He has a twin brother, who develops a career, doing Hemsley covers. There is also the character of Presley, who had a stillborn twin brother. It is a bizarre and confusing notion

Many will be puzzled by the emphasis on Judaism within a vehicle, which is essentially designed to promulgate Christian values. Early on, “The Identical” introduces a Jewish character, Avi Hirshberg (Joe Pantoliano), who inexplicably migrated from Brooklyn to a small town in Tennessee to open a garage. I was willing to accept this as some random plot contrivance. However, subsequently the film interjects Israel’s Six Day War against its Arab neighbors in 1967.  Reverend Wade cites it in one of his sermons and describes it as one of God’s modern-day miracles. He asks his congregants to pray for Israel. He even places a menorah, a candelabra, used in the annual eight-day commemoration of the Jewish holiday, Chanukah.

To better understand this posturing, the viewer needs to be familiar with a strain of pro-Zionism that is embraced by some Christians. Starting with the Protestant Reformation, certain religious scholars scrutinized the scriptures and postulated that an essential prelude to the Second Coming of Christ was the realization of a certain Biblical prophecy. In it, Jews returned to Judea, embraced Jesus as their Savior, and rebuilt the Temple. Invoking this notion, some contemporary fundamentalist Christians espouse a strongly pro-Zionist position.

Even understanding this, there are further Jewish identity issues that made absolutely no sense from a narrative or iconographic vantage point. At some juncture, I noticed that Ryan was wearing a necklace with a symbol attached to it. It looked as if it were the Jewish Hai sign, which is the Hebrew symbol for life. However, the film presents no reason why Ryan, whose character is defined as a Christian, would be wearing a symbol, which marks the wearer as a Jew. He subsequently meets a dwarf rocker, Damon (Daniel Woodburn in a nicely turned performance). He is also coincidentally is wearing a Hai symbol. Damon recounts that he had met Elvis and the experience changed his life. He advises Ryan that Elvis’ mother was Jewish. There is no historical basis for this suggestion. Eventually, another farfetched coincidence is revealed. Ryan’s biological mother was Jewish. Since Ryan does not know that his biological mother was Jewish, it doesn’t explain why he would be wearing a Hai symbol.

This film follows several recent Christian-marketed box office successes, such as “Son of God,” “God’s Not Dead,” and “Heaven is for Real.” “The Identical” includes the overt religious posturing of its predecessors, which pander to their target demographic. It also throws in the pro-Zionist theme and confounding inclusion of Jewish identity twists. Ultimately, “The Identical” emerges as an absurd doppelganger tale on steroids.

Suffice it to say, Elvis has left the building.

 “The Identical”    PG (for thematic material and smoking) 107 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.



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