When I say that The Identical isn’t terrible, it may sound like damnation by faint praise. And yet, in this case, I’m legitimately impressed. That’s because this turns out to be a Christian movie, and most Christian movies are lazy, unimaginative, phoned-in bores from the word “go”. To be not-terrible is to be head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the genre.
But The Identical is not just any Christian movie. No, as Vince Mancini explains, it’s “The Room if Tommy Wiseau was an evangelical Christian Elvis impersonator making a royalty-free origin story in which he played his own twin, except that instead of a cast of complete unknowns, it stars Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Joe Pantoliano, and Seth Green” I get the reference to The Room in that this is essentially a vanity project, but the similarity ends there. Unlike Wiseau, pretty much everyone involved here knows what they’re doing. And, unlike most evangelical Christian movies, they care about doing it well and not just relying on their target demographic showing up after church on Sunday.
As I said, this is basically an origin story for an Elvis impersonator, played by Blake Rayne (born Ryan Pelton), who had his own career as an Elvis impersonator, and by all accounts a pretty good one. But they don’t have the rights to Elvis or any of The King’s music, so he’s is fictionalized as Drexel “The Dream” Hemsley (also Rayne), including an offhand reference in the dialogue to the real Elvis just to be sure nobody gets the wrong idea here.
The hook is that the real Elvis actually had an identical twin who was stillborn. But what if, Howard Klausner’s script wonders, he actually survived, but the Presleys couldn’t support two kids? They said the one twin died, but really gave him to a childless preacher and his wife. Reece and Louise Wade (Liotta and Judd) raise the child (Rayne, as an adult) as Ryan and aim him towards his adoptive father’s vocation.
And yet, right from the start Ryan shows his love of music. He gets in trouble as a teenager with his friend Dino (Green) going to honky-tonks across the county line, and his singing wins the heart of his eventual bride, Jenny (Erin Cottrell). Everyone notices how much he looks and sounds like Drexel; he even gets a job offer from a local mechanic (Pantoliano) over a combination of that and his work on his own truck. But nothing ever really comes of it until he gets dared to enter a Drexel-impersonation contest, which he wins handily, leading to nationwide fame and fortune.
The impressive thing is how The Identical avoids the standard Christian-movie tropes. We don’t have the usual rejection-redemption arc; Ryan isn’t lost until he finds Jesus. In fact, “Jesus” barely makes an appearance here. No, the problems the characters face are all about love and family and good values. It’s smarmy, sure, but it’s not something you need to be religious to get behind, or that tries to shove religion down the audience’s throats.
But this still probably would be a drag if it weren’t for the music. Again, these aren’t the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, but they’re pretty impressive as knockoffs not only of Elvis’ style, but of how that style evolved over the course of his career. To be perfectly frank, I found them catchier than actual Elvis songs, though that may be due to not hearing them so many thousands of times.
It all comes together into a perfectly adequate, family-friendly flick. It may have a few more mentions of God than Seabiscuit, but there’s no reason it can’t fit right alongside that sort of Disney-family fare.
Worth It: it almost is, just to see Rayne perform.
Bechdel Test: fail.