Every so often a movie comes along that I just can’t figure out how how I feel about it. On one hand, it’s not a terrible film, it’s just familiar — it knows what it is and does exactly what it seeks to do. On the other hand, after the movie’s over, there’s an emptiness that permeates your enjoyment, as if everything about it was hollow and forgettable. It’s almost like ordering Chinese food — it goes down well and satiates your hunger, but leaves you seeking additional nourishment thirty minutes later. That’s what it felt like watching The Identical, a movie that doesn’t do anything wrong except fail to deliver the emotional impact needed to leave a lasting impression.
I’m not sure exactly what it was that kept me from connecting to the film, but if I had to guess, it would probably have something to do with the not-so-subtle comparisons to Elvis that made it feel like I was watching some surreal, alternate-universe version of events where Elvis’s twin brother wasn’t stillborn, but was instead sent away to live a life his parents couldn’t give him. Perhaps it was in Dustin Marcellino’s direction, which never quite left the safety zone of capable by-the-book conformity, making everything feel to nice, too manufactured… too ordinary. Then again, maybe it’s because the story overlooks so much that it ends up leaving far too many questions unanswered.
Blake Rayne plays the title character, also known as Ryan Wade, as well as his twin brother Drexel Hemsley (a name I’m still not sure fits the era, making it seem as if the writers were simply trying to play on Ryan’s given name, Dexter; either way, it becomes a little bit of a distraction), who we don’t really see a whole lot of except in quick television clips, album covers and movie posters. The boys are split apart after their father, William (Brian Geraghty), can’t find a way to support them both. After seeking God’s guidance, William meets Reece Wade (Ray Liotta), a traveling preacher whose wife, Louise (Ashley Judd), can’t bear children. Giving one of the children away answers both of the families prayers.
This is the first time the film threw me a little. The families don’t seem to go through a typical adoption process. The Hemsley’s just give their child away and have a faux funeral for the him to convince everyone (including themselves?) that he died. This means that Ryan will grow up without any valid papers, such as a social security number, birth certificate, or any number of things that he will eventually need to get a job, a driver’s license, or join the military. It’s possible that the parents filed for these documents, but the entire concept is just one of many things that are glossed over instead of being discussed as a possible reason for why Ryan might find out about his past before he’s meant to.
And that’s another thing. I’m not against a storyline of someone looking (and sounding) near identical to someone else and having no relation to each other. Everyone has some sort of doppelganger, so you can always chalk something like that all up to coincidence. But at one point in the movie, after Ryan’s wife, Jenny (Erin Cottrell), talks him into entering a radio contest to find the best Drexel Hemsley impersonator, Drexel himself joins the judges table at the finals, and not once does he even consider introducing himself. I guess you can say that Drexel didn’t want to draw attention to himself, or be hounded by dozens of attendees for autographs, but if you did, you’d have to ignore the fact that this supposedly famous star walks into this event without so much as a fake mustache and not one person even attempts to get close. The only people who even seem to notice he’s there are the main characters, and even their reactions are far too subdued.
I did like how the movie uses a backdrop of Christianity to develop the characters and drive their actions, however, the message gets so lost in the simplicity of the filmmaking, that it all comes across as mere words rather than true belief. Throughout the movie, Ryan is constantly reminded that he is a preacher’s kid and that his true calling is in the ministry, even though his heart continues to drive him to music. This dilemma causes Ryan to become a little rebellious, going against Reece’s authority to have fun (and subsequently get arrested) at an abandoned factory “across the tracks” (you have to watch out for those heavy metaphors!) that features heavy Motown-style music.
As much as I believe in listening for God’s call and using the gifts He’s given you to follow your dreams, I wasn’t buying that the writers understood the idea beyond it being a good reason to add “power” to a rather typical storyline. I realize what they’re trying to do, and for some, it may work beautifully, but for me, the spiritual aspects that would normally have created a deep emotional impact are shrouded in this stale flatness that hovers in a space just between honest truth and heartfelt melodrama.
None of that takes away from the terrific performances by a handful of veteran actors. Liotta, Judd (who oddly doesn’t seem to age a day across the thrity some-odd years of the film) and Joe Pantoliano, who shows up as a mechanic (and giant Drexel Hemsley fan) who gives Ryan a job at a time when he needs a change in his life to sort through his future, help the young stars, including Rayne and Cottrell, elevate their game and give it their all in genuinely worthy performances. Even Seth Green does a good job with what very little he’s given. Green is such a smart comedian, I’m surprised the filmmakers couldn’t come up with something much more complex than just the one-note “best friend” role.
Despite an extremely odd opening (where we see Drexel driving through cotton fields and seeing the ghosts of the workers), and a series of heavily over-produced song recordings that made the performances of those songs feel as phony as the lip-synching, The Identical isn’t a bad film. It follows a time-tested formula that has worked many times before and will continue to work because the inherent message resonates with a lot of people. But the film isn’t as good as it is forgettable, a crazy dream that in a week’s time, you’ll remember almost nothing about… except maybe Elvis.
My Grade: B-
Next week, new movies include Dolphin Tale 2 and No Good Deed. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.