Imagine that Elvis Presley had a twin who was separated from him at birth. Raised by a preacher and his wife, the twin spent his adolescence steered toward a career in the ministry, but an almost preternatural gift for music led him to become a world-famous Elvis impersonator instead.
Oh, and at some point along the way, the twin marries Forrest Gump’s girlfriend.
Now strip away all the explicit references to Elvis Presley, substituting The King with a fictional character known as “The Dream,” and swap all of Elvis’ songs with generic copies that strangely sound like they were produced in the 1980s, and you have “The Identical,” one of the most fascinating and incompetent releases of 2014.
The problem with “The Identical” is that it isn’t identical to anything at all.
If you choose to view this film, you will emerge from the theater with the feeling that it was trying to tell you something, but you won’t have any idea what that something is. This is a film that will be a complete waste of money for anyone who pays full price for an opening weekend ticket, but could be an absolute riot on late night cable viewing five years from now.
The tale opens in 1935 as a poor, Depression-era couple gives birth to a set of twins. They can’t support both boys, so one is given to a traveling preacher (Ray Liotta) and his wife (Ashley Judd), who raise him as Ryan Wade (played as an adult by Blake Rayne). Wade grows up to become a divinity school dropout, and his brother Drexel (also Rayne) grows up to be a famous rock and roll star. And both look and sound strangely like Elvis. (It helps that Rayne used to be an Elvis impersonator in real life).
Somewhere in the course of his journey, Wade wins the heart of Jenny (Erin Cottrell), a long-haired, long-suffering local gal who finally champions her husband’s ambitions to follow his rock and roll dreams, even when those dreams are limited to playing a knock-off of Wade’s famous brother. Cottrell’s odd resemblance to another famous Jenny (Robin Wright’s character from “Forrest Gump”) becomes inescapable since Rayne so often comes off like the genetic offspring of Elvis and Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning simpleton.
The supporting cast is notable not for its formidable talent but for the way its talents do absolutely nothing to prop up this absurd film. Liotta and Judd are completely sincere, yet ineffective and poor Seth Green, who plays Wade’s drummer buddy Dino in a comically long red hippie-wig, looks like he lost a bet.
Of course, the craziest item of all is that Elvis really did have a twin, a brother named Jessie, who was stillborn (as far as we know, right?). Yet because “The Identical” doesn’t (or can’t?) make any explicit reference to The King, and because hardly anyone who sees this film will actually know this bit of rock and roll history, you’re left with a strange visual echo that consistently comes maddeningly close to making a point without actually making one.
There also seems to be some kind of message about clean living, since Wade’s religious upbringing leaves him resistant to alcohol or drugs or the like. The film highlights this part of the character on numerous occasions, but never offers any foil for comparison. The parallel would be pretty obvious if The Dream died like Elvis did, but instead, “The Identical” kills off its fake Elvis in a 1972 plane crash. If you want to make a statement about clean living, have your fake Elvis die of a drug overdose!
The original, out-of-place sounding music and odd, slick production gives “The Identical” the vibe of someone’s hackneyed off-Broadway musical, a heartfelt tearjerker that could have soared if it might have just secured a few more intellectual rights along the way. Instead, “The Identical” is a surreal kick to the head, a well-intended ham fest of unintentional comedy that the “Sharknado” guys only wish they could make.
“The Identical” is rated PG for some mild violence and thematic elements.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.