Well this is strange. It’s not uncommon for Evangelical Christian movies to be terrible or approach bizarre camp territory (see: “Fireproof,” which features Kirk Cameron smashing his porn-filled computer with a baseball bat), but “The Identical” sounds so weird that a lot of people are having trouble believing it’s real. Logline: Fake Elvis plus Jesus.
Here’s the lowdown: Elvis Presley had a stillborn brother, but “The Identical” presupposes that Ryan Wade, the brother of Elvis (named “Drexel Hemsley” in the movie), lived and became an uncanny Elvis impersonator. Wade’s adopted father (Ray Liotta) and mother (Ashley Judd) believe their son’s true calling is to be a preacher like his old man, but he chooses to pursue a music career of his own with his best friend (Seth Green).
Reviews have been scathing, with criticisms across the board for real-life Elvis impersonator Blake Rayne’s bland performance, the period-inaccurate knockoff Elvis songs like “Boogie Woogie Rock N Roll,” its glossy look, its heavy-handed drama, and out-of-nowhere pro-Israel sermons from Liotta. Perhaps even funnier than the frequently baffled-sounding reviews are their comment sections, many of which joke that it sounds like the reviewers made the movie up as a practical joke. From the A.V. Club: “I’m still struggling to grasp how Elvis’s long lost twin relates to Israel. Does he go to Israel? Is he symbolic of Israel?” From The Dissolve: “Haha good one, Scott. This isn’t a real movie. Nope. No way.”
Reviews are split on whether the movie is funny enough to match its nonsensical premise (though Jordan Hoffman and Matt Prigge compare it to “The Room”), but bad-movie lovers might have to check it out just to make sure it’s real. I’m still not wholly convinced.
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Chuck Bowen, Slant Magazine
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. Read more.
Bilge Ebiri, Vulture
Did I actually see “The Identical,” or did I dream it? Despite its competent, polished surfaces, this is a deceptively strange movie: a faith-inflected mock-rock biopic about an Elvis-like phenomenon and his long-lost twin that turns into something of a religious allegory. It’s stocked with clichés, but they’re arranged in such weird ways that the end result is both predictable and certifiable. If only any of it actually went somewhere. Read more.
Kate Erbland, Film.com
As Ryan tries to carve out a normal life for himself, Drexel’s star just keeps rising. Eventually, the truth of the film’s title is revealed – Ryan, bent on performing in any manner possible, hits the circuit as a Drexel impersonator, one affectionately dubbed “The Identical.” This embarrassing and weird turn is never played for pity, but that doesn’t lend the film an air of optimism or joy – it just makes everyone look deeply uninformed. Read more.
Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian
Blake Rayne is a fine enough Elvis clone, but the songs he’s forced to sing are humiliating. “Boogie Woogie Rock N Roll,” “Bee-Boppin Baby” and “Nashville Tonight” all have the simple chord progressions we associate with the period, but the production is wrong in two ways. Despite an attempt to play this as a period film, as soon as the music strikes up, any pretense at capturing the late 1950s or 1960s is lost. The instrumentation and recording quality is far too modern. But – and here’s the really hilarious part – it isn’t modern enough to be “today”. It sounds like a throwback to a cheap cruise ship from 1995. No grace in this Graceland. Read more.
Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times
Some scenes, as when Ryan unwittingly sings to his hospitalized birth mother, are silly enough to be mistaken for “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” yet this movie’s earnest infectiousness is tough to deny. “The Identical” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). The Devil’s music. Read more.
Amy Nicholson, The Village Voice
This is Ryan’s story, and Ryan is boring. He and his drummer Dino (Seth Green) play a handful of shows and then notice that his doppelganger Drexel is burning up the charts. They look alike, sound alike, and both sing songs about boogie-woogie. Nothing much happens, other than that. The script is credited to Howard Klausner (“Space Cowboys”) but there’s a more powerful narrator calling the shots: God. But, frankly, God makes a terrible screenwriter. Read more.
Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune
Playing the title role as well as the Dream role, real-life Elvis tribute artist Blake Rayne is more convincing when he’s singing than when he isn’t. But he has little to explore beyond bashful smiles. The entire project has the clean-scrubbed, artificial air of a diorama. This is the prettiest Depression I’ve ever seen. The script is so determined to deliver an upbeat message of faith and love, it forgets to be interesting. Too many lines end up stranded halfway between camp and sincerity (“Slap the dog and spit in the fire — he looks like our child!”). Read more.
Matt Prigge, Metro
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. Read more.
Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly
But the problem isn’t the religious material; it’s that the rote family melodrama allows too little time to focus on the idea of a guy mimicking a twin he doesn’t know he has, while playing it straight-faced instead of for the inspired craziness it is. Some solid faux-Elvis original songs (by the director’s father & brother) only emphasize a missed opportunity that aims for “inspired,” but in all the wrong ways. Read more.
Scott Tobias, The Dissolve
Appealing canine qualities aside, the original songs Rayne has to sing are excruciatingly terrible, with one generic roadside-bar number for every three anachronistic, aspirational ballads. This isn’t a minor point, because the film is wall-to-wall music, as Wade makes his steady ascent from all-black juke joints to Hemsley impersonation contests to playing the big stages as “The Identical.” On this wave of bad music and implausible doppelgängers—at one point, Hemsley even turns up to watch his brother perform, and doesn’t find the resemblance sufficiently uncanny enough to investigate—the film delivers its ham-handed message of following God’s path, whether it leads through the ministry or the pop charts. Just like fake Elvis did. Read more.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club