Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Identical is an evangelical Elvis parable—no, really

Illustration for article titled  The Identical is an evangelical Elvis parable—no, really

The evangelical oddity The Identical takes one of the cornerstones of the Elvis legend—the King’s stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon—and spins it into a lumpy pro-Israel parable distinguished by its unconscious strangeness and utter sincerity. Rooted in the language and imagery of conservative Protestant Zionism and directed in a rough approximation of Hollywood style, it’s the kind of curio that’s arguably more interesting to think about than to watch—a plodding melodrama that mixes royalty-free Elvis worship with preachy proselytizing.

The Bizarro World script—by Space Cowboys cowriter Howard Klausner—follows small-town hunk Ryan Wade (Elvis impersonator Ryan Pelton, billed as Blake Rayne) over the course of several decades, as he abandons his musical ambitions to pursue a career as a professional impersonator of Elvis stand-in Drexel Hemsley (also Rayne), unaware that he is the superstar’s long-lost twin brother. This alternate-universe depiction of Presley’s rise to fame—much of which is focused, visually and thematically, on his late-career fondness for jeweled Chai pendants—is complicated by the fact that the real-life Presley appears to coexist in the film alongside his fictionalized counterpart.

Hemsley remains mostly offscreen, functioning as an all-purpose metaphor. He is a Christ figure, whom Ryan can only aspire to imitate; a symbol of shared Judeo-Christian heritage; a stand-in for the State Of Israel, which Ryan and his ilk must defend at any cost. The Identical goes to great lengths to ensure that none of these parallels are lost on the viewer, and a good chunk of the movie is taken up with tangents about Jewish identity and the history of the State Of Israel. One typical sequence—set during the Six-Day War, which the movie depicts as an event of near-apocalyptic proportions—finds Ryan’s adopted father, Rev. Reece Wade (Ray Liotta, who also executive-produced), literally preaching to the choir about the need to support Israel against exterior (read: Arab) threats, using a menorah as a prop. An East Coast-accented Jewish character—a local car mechanic named Avi Hirshberg (Joe Pantoliano)—is on hand to lend questionable legitimacy to the proceedings.

Wedged between the Israel metaphors and the strained separated-at-birth melodramatics are a number of extended musical numbers, which find Hemsley and Ryan performing such beloved hits as “Boogie Woogie Rock ’N’ Roll,” “Bee Boppin’ Baby,” and “Nashville Tonight,” none of which sound period-accurate. (The movie’s centerpiece song, “City Lights,” has a distinctly ’80s chord progression.) These generic placeholders point to a larger problem that is endemic to so-called faith-based entertainment, be it church-group-ready movies or Christian rock. Unlike the scrappy evangelical productions of yesteryear—such as the paranoid End Times classic A Thief In The Night, which is a gem of low-budget B-filmmaking, chock-full of rack focus shots and associative cuts—movies like The Identical aspire only to present a cut-rate facsimile of the mainstream. In this regard, the movie is more successful than the incompetent God’s Not Dead; however, viewers will probably find themselves wishing there was a sense of personality on screen to match the eccentric passion that clearly went into putting the project together.