The Identical pivots on the legend that Elvis Presley had a double (who some say was Jesse, his twin brother who died in childbirth). The film’s spin on the Elvis figure is Drexel Hemsley (Blake Rayne), a legendary 1950s rock-n’-roller who’s universally adored, particularly by Ryan Wade (Rayne), a dead ringer who can sing just like his hero, though he’s afraid to dispute his father’s (Ray Liotta) belief that he become a preacher like his old man. We already know, though, from a 1930s-set prologue that’s even less convincing than the remainder of the movie, that the men’s resemblance to one another is more than just a coincidence: Ryan and Drexel really are brothers, who were split apart when Drexel’s parents gave Ryan away because of their limited means at the height of the Depression (why they feel as if they can still care for one child is but one of the film’s countless incongruities). That’s a perfectly serviceable premise for a melodrama, and The Identical does absolutely nothing with it.
The film’s so preoccupied with being “inspirational” that it disastrously fails to evoke the allure of rock n’ roll, particularly in America in the 1950s, when it represented an erosion of racial and sexual barriers. You don’t have to be a teen of his era to see why Presley caused such a stir in people: He was almost overpoweringly sexy, though that sexiness, like that of Marilyn Monroe, was tinged with a disconcerting element of innocence that’s completely alien to a contemporary culture that renders weathered, seen-it-all hags of adolescents. You want to screw him and hug him in the same gesture, a confusion that’s confounded by the implicatively forbidden fact that many people (both black and white) derided him for playing “black” music way before that became a standard white dude pose.
None of this context, which an Elvis layman understands out of pop-cultural osmosis, is allowed to make its way into The Identical. There are pointedly no references to race at all (and the film’s primarily set in Alabama), or to sex, drugs, or really any misbehavior, apart from a few Happy Days¬-level hijinks with a father’s stolen car. The global political turmoil of the time is occasionally acknowledged in pitifully pat soundbites, such as when Ryan’s father announces that it’s time to thank God that Israel won a war in the Middle East in a scene that’s ghoulishly hilarious in light of contemporary headlines. The dialogue is tone deaf, given to sounding the banal theme of “finding yourself” aloud, and rich in howlers, such as the requisite “I ain’t never seen anyone move like that” or “When the music started, it was like a fire erupted in that heart of his,” or, no joke, “Some dreams aren’t meant to be, some dreams take a backseat to just plain hell.” And the songs, all consciously intended to evoke Presley numbers, are prudishly forgettable embarrassments.
The characters, or what passes for them, have no interior life. Director Dustin Marcellino cuts to a montage every time something dramatic might be threatening to happen (about the only dated visual cliché left unmined here is the one where calendar pages blow away in the wind), and this stratagem has an insidious effect. Conflicts are elided so as to emphasize the folky good times of a bunch of humble people who just want to listen to their now-pointless music and drink their Cokes and have babies and utter sincere platitudes to one another. This film, which has the verisimilitude and emotional tenor of one of those feature-length Christian recruiting ads that are released each year as movies, ineptly celebrates the very gentrification that rock challenged. There’s no danger.
Admittedly, even a better film would have trouble recovering from Rayne’s performances. There’s no life in the actor’s glassy eyes or slack jaw or infuriatingly flat, affectless line deliveries, as he’s an unthinking monument to a sense of safe, complacent idiocy. There’s no style to this mama’s boy, and that’s never more evident than in a concert sequence that backfires horribly because it features extras who effortlessly steal Rayne’s thunder. The worst thing that can be said about Rayne is that he perfectly embodies this almost unbelievably awful film’s neutered textbook vision of Elvis Presley. He’s the perfect Elvis for someone who insists that the King was an overrated fraud.