Monday, June 19, 2017

The Identical

(PG, Freestyle Releasing, 107 mins., theatrical release date: Sept. 5, 2014)

The idea of "faith-based" entertainment is not without its virtues. Whether optimistic or misanthropic, a film instilled with some kind of moral angle can prove stimulating, if not transcendental. But the deal breaker, the most important aspect I look for, is that is has to be tangibly grounded. Capra understood this, even if one's path is blocked by the rising corn stalks. Archetypes work better with a real environment, if not other all-importants as credible dialogue or a biological allergy to arrogance. Dipping my toes into today's Christian-baiting cinema, alas, has not made me feel newly baptized.

I singled out the atrocious Old Fashioned as a ground zero offender in this movement. The rust belt condescension, its disturbing romantic doctrine and the pervasive leadenness of Rik Swartzwelder's driving hands has haunted me since first watch. But in today's culture of heightened ironic appreciation, Swartzwelder's homely regression has nothing on THE IDENTICAL. Much like the Cannon movies of yesteryear or the current crop of midnight movie figureheads, some people laugh off the unhinged shoddiness as a defense mechanism. And Dustin Marcellino has given this cult the Bible-thumping successor they've craved, knowingly or not.

You can easily deduce this as fan fiction from a church organist gone to the Land of Nod, borrowing freely from the biography of Elvis Presley as it drifts off into madcap Zionist screeds and pining for the edgeless assimilation of Pat Boone. In Howard Klausner's script, the King's mythically-stillborn twin Jesse Garon Presley survived birth and was raised as the dumbfounded adopted son of a tent show minister, breaking away from his daddy's idea of living and embracing divine career consultation. Had this been written for the secular market, the premise could have had a chance at prestige. Crafted for the modern day pulpit, it's more hysterical than the apocalyptic barrage of imagery in Nick Cave's "Tupelo."

The Identical begins in Depression-era 1935, where William and Helen Hensley (Brian Geraghty, Amanda Crew) arrive via boxcar to start a family in Decatur, Alabama. With employment not being so gainful, William picks cotton while house-sitting Helen gives birth to two baby boys. William frets over the financial woes posed by this fruitful circumstance as he takes in a sermon by Reverend Reece Wade (executive producer Ray Liotta), a traveling preacher who, in the midst of declaring "better to give than to receive," reveals his wife Louise's (Ashley Judd) infertility in a show of vulnerability. And thus the Hemsleys painfully agree to give up one of their tots to the Wades, with a shoebox burial staged for the absent Dexter Ryan Hemsley.

This child, now simply known as Ryan Wade, grows up under Reece's God-fearing tutelage and parameters. Ryan instinctively develops a love for music to where the crux of his teenage rebellion is sneaking into juke joints to hear R&B, never once smoking or drinking unlike his rowdy best friend Dino (Seth Green). But Ryan (Blake Rayne) is not the only one; his twin brother Drexel Hemsley (Rayne) heeds the same call and becomes a superstar in the process, nicknamed "The Dream." But because of their separation at birth, Ryan remains unaware of his lineage even as his resemblance to Drexel thrusts him into the limelight as "The Identical," playing Drexel's hits to audiences just as oblivious as he. It's not long until Ryan's attempts at independence finally lead him to both the secret of his bloodline and the path of righteousness.

A lot of specifics were left out of that synopsis, but it's those details which turn this potentially engrossing film into a ridiculous pretender. Begin with one of the most unavoidable topics: the American South in the 1950s. Were dusk-till-dawn road houses there really alive with the sound of black music back then? Did we achieve integration that easily and civil rights was never an issue again? Isn't it odd that the stereotypical redneck officer makes more of a fuss over Ryan than the people who had every right to fear for their safety at this point in time? When Elvis burst onto the scene, it was inflammatory to both sides of the racial divide, whereas scandal is scrubbed clean away in The Identical. There's even a couple of stereotypical mammy surrogates (a house maid, a nurse's aide) thrown in mindlessly.

Putting aside that revisionism in the name of "alternate reality," it's amazing how much Elvis is in this movie, which couldn't be more anti-Elvis if Michael J. Fox played a supporting role. Rather than try a different tack for Ryan and Drexel's musical awakenings, Marcellino & Klausner lift all the basics from the Elvis Presley timeline. There are impromptu concerts while in the Army, recording sessions in a faux-Sun studio, a private getaway called Dreamland, and even a kitschy beach blanket pastiche called "Sunrise Surfin'" which was done better in Top Secret! In fact, since the King's music remains out of the producers' reach, the original soundtrack tries for facsimiles of the classic Elvis sound that are nowhere near as uncanny as when Val Kilmer sang "Straighten Out the Rug." Drexel Hemsley is even spiffed up Jim Morrison-style in his later years, and he's still no huckleberry let alone Mr. "Hound Dog."

And yet, in a pivotal scene where Ryan shuns his Drexel-impersonating fame on the grounds of not being able to work in his original songs, Klausner has the irate manager scream "There's only one Elvis!" This is easily the most hilarious line in the movie, especially considering Drexel and Ryan are played by Blake Rayne, who we all know was cast for his striking resemblance to Fabian. No, Rayne is actually the screen name of Ryan Pelton, an Elvis impersonator who gets to parlay his act toward leading man stature. An identical playing an identical of an identical…of an identical.

Not that Rayne is given a chance to channel Elvis in any way but appearance's sake. The real life dichotomies of the once-in-a-lifetime singer of both "One Night" and "In the Ghetto" are glossed over to focus on Ryan's blandly overfamiliar growing pains. This allows not only for the pervasive chasteness and multi-periodic anachronisms, but also for Dustin Marcellino and his extended clan (including father Yochanan, who plays a record executive whose label boasts the same name as his production company, City of Peace) to work in a more Judeo-Christian angle than expected. The first clues are there in that Depression prologue, in the dialogue and design. By the time it's rendered explicit with a messianic lecture about the Six-Day War, such a quirky tack fades away to reveal yet another "faith-based" movie where the inspiration doesn't merely take a back seat to the agenda, but is pushed out of the car and off of the bridge.

The Identical is a hard movie to fully hate, which is a blessing in itself compared to Old Fashioned. I am touched by certain themes of reconciliation (watch for Chris Mulkey in a minor role) and uncertainty which play out in the arc of Ryan Wade. Ray Liotta, undergoing an unintentionally non-flattering aging process, convinces richly in several emotionally-charged scenes even though a couple, like when he holds infant Ryan in his arms on a dark night, are irredeemably hammy. And as a black sheep myself, I am open to a story about distanced siblings who never get the chance to truly unite. The highlight of The Identical is a genuinely moving scene where Ryan sneaks into the hospital room of his gravely ill birth mother and serenades her in a way that reminds her just enough of the boy she raised. Coincidentally, it's the sole time any of the overreaching original songs works in any scene.

But there's not a whole lot of struggling going on with Ryan, who should've been written and acted to be less of a nonentity. Marcellino's promo clip style favors senseless montages and repetitive musical cues at the expense of real engagement. At one point, Drexel appears at a contest to judge his own best impersonator, Ryan being the clear shoo-in. With the passing of Helen Hemsley and Ryan being told non-stop of his resemblance to Drexel (including from Joe Pantoliano's saintly mechanic), the stage is set for resonance which Marcellino doesn't capitalize on. Blake Rayne is just striking overrripe poses in his self-confrontation. The incident doesn't have any bearing afterwards, even as tragedy strikes from all sides.

These melodramatic contortions are made worse by the narration, which we come to learn very belatedly is voiced by the character of Jenny (Erin Cottrell), Ryan's sweetheart who lives up to her name by hopping in and out of the narrative to help this rock-n-rolling Forrest Gump believe in love. On screen, Jenny does precious little except join the gallery of subservient wives alongside Ashley Judd and Amanda Crew. Speaking aloud, Jenny is even more worthless, an insufferable vessel for solemn homilies, wishy-washy historical accounts and even repeating verbatim lines of dialogue spoken seconds prior. When Reece tells his wayward son "it's time to grow up and start being a man," it's terrible strategy to have the narrator parrot it from her POV.

Despite the involvement of Liotta, Pantoliano, Judd, and lifetime adolescent Seth Green (the Robot Chicken lampoon of his involvement here is preordained), The Identical is as cut-rate as they come. There is indeed only one Elvis, and no amount of innocuous plagiarism can erase that, let alone such pitiful tunes as "Boogie Woogie Rock and Roll," "Nashville Tonight" and "City Lights." I could easily re-christen this The Imitation for sarcasm's sake, but I deeply anticipate a RiffTrax commentary to take care of that for me. Indeed, The Identical may just be manna from heaven for guilt-free fans of Grease 2 or The Apple. Everyone else can leave the building.

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