Elvis-inspired religious musical The Identical should be returned to sender 



For a film critic, August is more deadly than another dozen major dailies announcing layoffs: It is the beginning of a slow slog between summer's dumb-but-fun popcorn flicks and winter's onslaught of award hopefuls. Anyone with a passion for writing about film learns quickly that the majority of their waning summer weeknights will be filled attending long, lonely screenings at a multiplex on the outskirts of town, all for the cinematic equivalent of eating a gas-station hot dog.

So squirt a little mustard and relish on The Identical. The latest in a long line of cynically tailored religious films to reach theater screens this year, director Dustin Marcellino's Middle Tennessee-shot musical drama (which won the Audience Award at this year's Nashville Film Festival) doesn't offer the tangible feel-good gimmick that Heaven Is for Real capitalized on a few months ago, relying instead on a weak alt-history plot that asks what would have happened if a thinly disguised Elvis Presley's twin brother had survived. That's not going to have your neighborhood church renting out theaters quite as quickly as telling them, "Guys, we swear, you're not wasting your time every Sunday," so the film may already be one strike down with its constituents.

Real-life Elvis impersonator Blake Rayne stars in the dual roles of Drexel Hemsley and Ryan Wade, the twin offspring of a starving Depression-era husband and wife. They hand over Ryan to a barren couple (Ray Liotta and Ashley Judd) in a moment of religious fervor brought upon by preacher Liotta's sermon one Sunday. Hemsley overcomes extreme poverty to become the Presley-like figure of this universe — well, Presley enough for this film, although he fails to exude the sex and danger that drew so many teens toward the orbit of the real thing on our planet. Here, Hemsley's songs contain lyrics just close enough to the real deal to draw comparisons, dotted with allusions to a tortured soul calling out for the old-time religion.

Meanwhile, Wade just happens to be the biggest Hemsley fan in the world, with no one in his town pulling him to the side and saying, "No, you don't understand, you REALLY look a lot like that singer." But it's not just looks: Wade also sounds just like Hemsley when he sings, which he does frequently at town talent shows and devilish honky-tonks. These excursions into the world of secular entertainment tear at his fabric, as his preacher father expects the kid to follow his footsteps to the pulpit when he's of age. It seems the biggest thing that the two brothers have in common could be their struggles with faith over personal glory. Also, their total lack of charisma.

The Identical carries the imprimatur of City of Peace Films, the production arm of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America — which perhaps explains the odd aside of Daddy Liotta exuberantly thanking Jesus for Israel's victory in the Six Day War. Even granting the popularity of recent "faith-based" religious propaganda films, however, it is difficult to understand how something this amateurishly made managed to procure a wide release. It's commonplace to walk away from a bad movie-going experience and think, "If only it had a better director, or if that one scene had been taken out ... " No amount of second-guessing could have saved The Identical.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.


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