Here’s a bit of Elvis Presley trivia that might surprise some: The King was a twin. His brother was stillborn, and Presley, by some accounts, was haunted and fascinated by this twist of fate. He always wondered what his life would have been like had his brother survived.
Howard Klausner, the screenwriter behind “The Identical,” apparently wondered the same thing. In the movie, a famous singer grows up believing his twin died at birth, only he didn’t. In this story, though, the singer is named Drexel Hemsley, which is good, because the last thing we need is more Elvis conspiracy theories. But the resemblance is clear: the voice, the hips, the slight curl of the lip. And who better to play Drexel and his long-lost twin, Ryan Wade, than the winner of an Elvis impersonator contest?
And yet, the dedication to Elvis-like veracity doesn’t necessarily pay off. Blake Rayne may look and sound like the King, but the first-time actor doesn’t have the charisma to pull off this lead role.
“The Identical” is really about Ryan. The story begins in the 1930s, in black and white, as the impoverished Hemsleys realize they can barely take care of one child, let alone two. Like a sign from God, William Hemsley (Brian Geraghty) figures out a solution when he happens upon a tent revival where a preacher is lamenting that he and his wife cannot conceive. So the Hemsleys hand off one son to Reece (Ray Liotta) and Louise Wade (Ashley Judd) and make the couple promise to keep the secret until William and his wife have died.
Reece steers Ryan toward a future as a preacher, just like dad, but the boy’s passion for music is immediately apparent. Instead of reciting hymns at church, he belts them out with a hint of gospel music; he sneaks around to honky-tonks even though his dad forbids it; and when Ryan joins the Army, he brings his guitar along and serenades his platoon.
Not long after he returns home, he hears Drexel on the radio, and Ryan is smitten with the sound, tormenting his parents by playing the record over and over. Meanwhile, the growing hordes of Drexel Hemsley fans can’t believe the uncanny resemblance between Ryan and the singer. That likeness actually helps Ryan realize his dream of singing professionally. He becomes a Drexel Hemsley impersonator, traveling the country playing all the hits to adoring fans.
The movie is the feature debut for director Dustin Marcellino, and it follows a formulaic route, charting the ups and downs of fame and fortune. Even if Ryan is a mere impersonator, he’s still a very successful one, and his rise leads to even more trite moments, including a greedy manager who throws dollar bills in the air and says things like “I made you, Ryan Wade, and don’t you forget it.” And Ryan’s performance during a pivotal contest culminates in Drexel himself leading a slow-clap standing ovation.
While Rayne doesn’t rise to the challenge of pulling off some very emotional scenes, some of the other performances are quite good. Judd is hardly doing heavy lifting here, but her portrayal of a loving mom is heartfelt and sweet, and it’s nice to see Liotta softening up a bit instead of doing one of his go-to mobster roles. Joe Pantoliano most seamlessly inhabits his part while offering a lot of comic relief as an auto mechanic who hires Ryan after the boy drops out of divinity school.
The music is catchy and sounds sufficiently Elvis-like, and “The Identical” occupies a neglected niche as a family-friendly movie that isn’t geared just toward kids. But living up to a legend is an uphill battle, and the movie doesn’t ever reach those heights.