NOW THAT the Oscar fallout has well and truly settled – and we can stave off the entire bloody awards season at last – it’s back to business here at Film Torments. No theme for this month, just the usual gamut of standard suspects. Today, we’ll be looking at 2014’s The Identical.
The Identical is one of those doozies that cinema intermittently conjures up from the primordial ooze to satiate snarks the world over. Think Battlefield Earth levels of doozism and you have a grasp of what we’re dealing with here, with a fraction of the budget. Unlike Battlefield Earth – which heralded the cataclysmic end to John Travolta’s post-Pulp Fiction comeback before he became known as an Oscar punchline – The Identical will be a setback for no one. No one, at least, save the shuffling, dead-eyed mannequin that replaced Ray Liotta in the mid-90s.
Grossing around $3 million on a $32 million budget, The Identical was a fairly sizeable bomb on the other side of the Atlantic, having the decency to not even bother showing its face over here. Helmed by a cast that has seen (and hopefully will see) better days, the film’s plot is incomprehensible and miscalculated to the point of hilarity, featuring dialogue so obvious and performances so broad you’d think you were watching a pantomime. It’s also very difficult to summarise what the hell is going on in any succinct, coherent fashion.
Riding the crest of the God-bothering wave currently engulfing America (see, or don’t: God’s Not Dead, Heaven is for Real, Saving Christmas), The Identical is a film about Elvis that doesn’t have the rights to his image or even his music. Instead, we get two ersatz Elvises – one a rip-off, the other a rip-off of a rip-off – both played by real-life Elvis impersonator Blake Rayne. Meta. The film’s plot uses real-Elvis’ stillborn twin brother (which sounds like a Cards Against Humanity ploy) to ask the question: What if that twin had lived?
Separated at birth by their impoverished parents in the Great Depression, Not-Elvis grows up to be a world-famous rock n’ roll singer, while Not Not-Elvis is raised by a preacher (Ray Liotta) and his evergreen wife (Ashley Judd), who groom him for a career in the church. Finding himself torn between his father’s wishes and his own penchant for rock n’ roll, Not Not-Elvis discovers Not-Elvis’ music and resolves to follow his dreams and… impersonate Not-Elvis, who is also his twin brother, but he doesn’t know it because he was never told because, for some reason, the real parents pretended that the given-away twin had died…?
As you might have guessed by that languid paragraph, trying to untangle the Gordian knot of The Identical’s narrative is a Herculean labour in itself. That’s one thing – being able to sit through it with a straight face is quite another. It’s impossible to take seriously, largely because the audience spends most of its running time figuring out just what the heartbreak hotel fuck is going on.
Not Not-Elvis – AKA Ryan – discovers Not-Elvis – AKA Drexel “The Dream” Hemsley – and does not immediately twig that they look – and sound! – the same after perusing an LP. Not content with giving the audience time to swallow this particular lump of contrivance, the movie packs Ryan off to the Army, ostensibly so they can evoke the fact that, yes, Elvis was drafted. Ryan eventually finds himself dubbed ‘The Identical’ after winning a Drexel impersonation contest – a contest judged by Drexel himself! – but not before pointedly asking himself, “Who are you?” in the mirror.
This would be all well and good in a universe where Elvis doesn’t exist; where The Identical was a heart-wrenching parable of what could have been had the King’s twin lived. This isn’t the case. “There’s only one Beatles,” Ryan’s manager (Waylon Payne) intones, “There’s only one Drexel, and there’s only one Elvis!” Suddenly, gloriously, the facade collapses in on itself – Elvis Presley himself, the King of Rock n’ Roll, exists in this movie.
There is no mention of him before or after; Elvis exists in this single line and, through his existence, destroys all remaining credulity. Elvis existing means that Drexel is the biggest, most obvious rip-off to ever grace a gramophone, and Ryan is an even bigger rip-off. The rampant insanity of this single line is manifold, clubbing the fragile integrity of the plot into the prestige, period-sheen floor.
And it is very, very prestige. For all the side-splitting awfulness of the plot and the vaudeville obviousness of the performances, the period setting is evocative, particularly as it veers into the 50s. Though a little shiny, the smoke-wreathed music halls and slicked back hair certainly captures the decade’s visual essence but only in a hollow, mimetic way – much like the grinning star at its heart. Rayne, though clearly having fun, is adrift. Liotta, on the other hand, knows exactly what he’s doing, overacting the living lord out of his stern patriarch role.
Seth Green, as Ryan’s best friend Dino, drifts in and out of the film (and probably consciousness) on a whim. Judd looks exactly the same at 60 as she does at 30. Joe Pantoliano looks deeply ashamed. Rayne, for all his faults as an actor, is the only one who is really trying – he’s got a great set of lungs, at least. If nothing else, he’s certainly a cracking Elvis impersonator.
But that’s what The Identical is – an impersonation. It’s a dishonest movie packaged with the kind of honesty that would make Danny “Yes Man” Wallace blush. It fails in the way that only a painfully earnest piece of work can: Catastrophically and hilariously. Seek it out if you want a laugh; I love it tender.