Are you clonesome tonight?
As many people know, Elvis Presley had an identical twin brother Jesse, who was stillborn 35 minutes before Elvis was born on January 8, 1935. But say, what if Jesse had lived? What if Vernon and Gladys Presley decided they simply couldn’t afford to raise two boys, and gave one of them to a childless couple to raise as their own?
That never happened, of course. But something like it happens in the new movie The Identical, written by Howard Klausner and directed by Dustin Marcellino. Deep in the Great Depression, cotton farmer William Hemsley (Brian Geraghty) is torn when his wife Helen (Amanda Crew) gives birth to twin boys, Drexel and Dexter, in their tiny shack. They can barely feed even one baby; with two they might all starve. Looking for guidance, he attends a tent revival presided over by the Rev. Reece Wade (Ray Liotta). Oversharing a bit, preacher Wade tells the congregation that he and his wife Louise (Ashley Judd) suffered a miscarriage “over Thanksgiving.”
This, by the way, is the first of several jolts in The Identical’s chronology. The voice-over narration tells us that the twins were born in October, which would make Louise’s miscarriage at least 11 months ago, but the Wades speak and act as if it happened only yesterday. But I digress.
The Rev. Wade says that the doctors warned them that another pregnancy could cost Louise her life. William sees the hand of God in this news. He persuades his wife Helen to offer one of their twin boys to the childless Wades, and he extracts a promise from the Wades to say nothing to their adopted son until both he and Helen are dead. Then, after the Wades have driven away, the Hemsleys bury an empty box under a grave marker with the name of their son Dexter, who supposedly lived only one day.
After a brief stop in the 1940s, the scene moves to sometime in the early 1950s—again, chronology is vague—and little Dexter has grown into Ryan Wade (Blake Rayne), groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps as a man of the cloth. But Ryan hears the siren call of this new music called rock ’n’ roll, especially as personified by the sensational singing of a young boy from Alabama, none other than Drexel “the Dream” Hemsley. In time, after a stint in the Army and much conflict with his conservative father, Ryan will hit the road touring state fairs and concert halls as “the Identical,” an uncanny Drexel impersonator.
The premise is intriguing, and it might have been made into one of several interesting movies—a hilarious comedy of mistaken identity, a touching drama of brothers separated at birth, a toe-tapping tour of ’50s-to-’70s pop music seen from both top (Drexel) and bottom (Ryan). To be any of those, however, it would have to have been crafted by hands far less sloppy than Klausner and Marcellino’s.
For starters, The Identical is careless about those dates. On a visit to Drexel Hemsley’s (and his own) birthplace, Ryan sees a historical marker giving Drexel’s birth date as February 12, 1932. Not two minutes later, baby Dexter’s gravestone gives his birthdate as October 24, 1935. Still later, when Drexel dies in the crash of his private plane (that’s not a spoiler; Elvis died young, too), his years of life are given as 1936-1972. There’s no excuse for that sort of thing.
There’s probably never been a movie that looks less lived-in than The Identical. Everybody looks like they just stepped out of the shower. Their clothes look like they’ve never been worn until that moment. Even the paint on the vintage cars looks like it’s still wet.
There are a few good entries in this parade of amateurishness: fine performances from Ashley Judd and especially Ray Liotta, from Joe Pantoliano as a garage mechanic who first notices the resemblance between the separated brothers, and Seth Green as Ryan’s drummer pal.
As both Drexel and Ryan, Blake Rayne (once an Elvis impersonator in real life) is earnest and appealing, but it takes more than just looking and singing like Elvis. There was only one Elvis. There are no identicals, only counterfeits.