Director: Dustin Marcellino
Stars: Blake Rayne, Ray Liotta
1 Globe (out of 5)
Nevermind the title; “The Identical” is an original. That doesn’t mean it’s good or even competent or even sane. A low-budget Christian production released into the nation’s theaters by the distributor who made a mint off of “God’s Not Dead” in the spring, it stars one Blake Rayne as Ryan, a good ol’ boy adopted by a preacher (Ray Liotta) and his goodly wife (Ashley Judd) after his impoverished, Depression-era parents couldn’t take care of both he and his twin brother. As it turns out, the preacher and his wife got the wrong kid: The twin that stayed with his biological parents, also played by Rayne, grows up to be…well not Elvis, but a Not Quite Elvis superstar, given the much catchier name of Drexel Hemsley (also Rayne).
There is nothing in cinema remotely like “The Identical,” especially once Ryan realizes he too has apparently God-given musical talents and embarks on his own, far bumpier life. Ryan, we’re told, also creates rock ’n’ roll — or rather he also steals it from black rhythm ’n’ blues players. But Ryan’s adoptive father puts the kibosh on his career as it’s taking off, intending for him to join the ministry. Ryan defies him anyway, and eventually becomes not a singer but an Elvis — sorry, Drexel Hemsley — impersonator. He’s even approved by the Not Quite King himself, who gives a performance of his a thumbs up but stops short of saying, “You’ve got the goods.”
That this is a religious movie where we’re invited to cheer as our protagonist embraces the sinful way of rock and or roll is one of many ways “The Identical” proves weird. It’s a profoundly confused (and sometimes confusing) movie, packed with parts that shouldn’t go together and don’t go together but which, when put together anyway, create the kind of experience you partake with jaw dropped and brows furrowed. There are hairpin plot turns only the truly creative could make up, plus details like how its lead actor is a web designer making his screen debut, cast only because he sort of looks like Mr. Presley. (Alas, his obvious decency is all he has going for him. He’s a wet blanket who fades into the background, even when playing Not Elvis in full Almost Elvis regalia.)
But there’s more. Not wanting to pay up to use Elvis’ name makes sense, but saddling him with the death of another rock pioneer doesn’t. (Nor does not letting him turn into Fat Elvis. He just gets long hair and lots of rings.) And what are actual actors doing in this off-Hollywood contraption? Liotta, who gets to play fiery preacher, brings moments of real pathos, as does Joe Pantoliano, in a rare nice role. Ashley Judd, as The Mom, and Seth Green, as Ryan’s drummer pal, have little to do but ooze professionalism. That might not sound like much of a compliment, but in this case it is. It’s like when you spot famous actors in “MST3K” movies.
Together the real, actual actors help throw off what should be an easily-mocked monstrosity. Instead, they just make it weirder. Its central idea could even work: At its heart is a look at how people deal with living in the shadows of much more famous family members of friends. (Elvis really did have a twin, but he was stillborn.) It just takes it in a bizarre direction.By the time late in Danny Woodburn — aka Mickey from “Seinfeld” — pops up as a diminutive rocker, “The Identical” has…well, it was already off the deep end. For a religious film it’s not even that preachy; its most fire-and-brimstone bit finds Liotta launching into a spittle-heavy sermon about defending Israel. It’s not “The Room,” but it might be something stranger: a film that knows what it’s doing, but which thing is completely nuts. It’s the nicest trainwreck you may ever see.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge