Intriguing idea, strong lead can’t save ‘Identical’

The website for “The Identical” has more endorsements from pastors than movie critics — this is not one of those evangelical pictures trying to hide its agenda. It’s produced by a Nashville-based company with roots in the born-again world and some legit music-biz credentials.

That agenda acknowledged, the picture has two notable strong points: an urban-legend storyline that’s been crying out for a movie treatment, and an unexpectedly engaging lead turn by a new performer.

The story springs from classic alternate-history stuff. We all know (I certainly hope we all know) that Elvis Presley had a twin brother who died at birth. What if the twin had actually survived and led a parallel existence to his famous sibling?

“The Identical” isn’t about the Presleys by name; its fictional Elvis is called Drexel Hemsley, born to a hardscrabble cotton-pickin’ family in the Depression. The elder Hemsleys give away the infant twin to a traveling preacher (Ray Liotta) and wife (Ashley Judd), who raise the child as their own son.

He’s stuck with the prosaic moniker Ryan Wade, and it’s his story we follow — Drexel’s rise to fame happens offscreen. For a while the movie reaches back to “The Jazz Singer” for dramatic focus, as the reverend Wade expects Ryan to follow his path to the pulpit.

The boy’s got music in his blood, so there are many “But I don’t feel the callin’, Papa” scenes to get through. Ryan achieves his own success in music by becoming a Drexel Hemsley impersonator, which is a pretty decent plot twist.

It’s certainly better than the cringe-worthy “birth of rock” scenes, in which Ryan leaps onstage at a ’50s juke joint and shows the happy-dancing black patrons what the new music is all about. (The faux-historical songs are by Jerry Marcellino — former producer for Michael Jackson and Diana Ross — and son Yochanan; Dustin Marcellino, Jerry’s grandson, directs.)

The engaging turn comes courtesy of Blake Rayne, who plays Ryan and Drexel. This strapping, slyly humorous fellow was working as an Elvis impersonator when tapped for the project, and he’s got an easy non-actory appeal. Everybody else is overacting, so this is especially welcome.

Rayne’s likability redeems at least some of this preposterous movie, which otherwise lurches from one improbable scene to the next, with the Christian messages coming thick and heavy toward the end. It may be preaching to the choir, but if your particular calling is to be a celebrity impersonator, “The Identical” is here to assure you that you are forgiven.

The Identical (1 1/2 stars)

This evangelical film is mostly preposterous, but it has two strong points: a fictionalized take on an urban legend (what if Elvis’s twin brother hadn’t died at birth?) and an engaging lead performance by newcomer Blake Rayne. Otherwise, it’s pretty cringe-worthy.

Rating: PG, for subject matter

Showing: Everett Stadium, Marysville, Meridian, Oak Tree, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.

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