Well, folks, the synergy between commercialized Christianity and the movie-making business has officially gotten weird. I wandered into a press screening for The Identical knowing next to nothing about it, which turned out to be a bit like taking mushrooms and wandering into a clown college audition. Every ten minutes is some new epiphany hitting you like a bucket of cold water. “Wait, THAT’S what this movie is about?”
How can I possibly prepare you for such an experience?
Maybe it makes more sense if I tell it from the beginning. The Identical was directed by Dustin Marcellino, and produced by a number of fellow Marcellinos. Closest I can tell, the Marcellino family, heirs to a presumably lucrative musical legacy begun by Dustin’s grandfather, Jerry, who wrote songs for the Jackson 5, now control a Christian music empire begun by Dustin’s Israeli father, Yochanan. At some point, the Marcellinos hooked up with “the world’s number one Elvis impersonator,” Ryan Pelton, deciding that Pelton would stop impersonating Elvis and become “Blake Rayne,” Zionist Christian rock superstar†. The Marcellinos would introduce Rayne to the world in The Identical, this sort of dual Christian rock origin story and royalty-free Elvis biopic parable (ironic coming from a group whose wealth came from musical royalties).
Of course, that’s just the backstory. What actually makes it to the screen in The Identical is this strangely stilted biopic about Not Elvis with a separated-at-birth twist. Blake Rayne, every bit as unctuous as his stage name suggests, with creepy jet black dracula hair, plays the dual role of Ryan Wade and Drexel Helmsley, identical twins born to poor sharecroppers during the depression. Helmsley’s parents give one son away to a childless traveling minister named Wade (played by Ray Liotta and his scary permanent eyeliner), and raise the other as his rock sensation doppelganger, Drexel Helmsley, a name I plan to type as much as possible because it is amazing. The movie follows the given-away son Ryan Wade through his life, becoming this sort of Christianized Forrest Gump movie in which the lead weirdo evolves through a series of party store Halloween costumes (greaser, hippie, sock hop) until he eventually becomes… the world’s most sought-after Drexel Helmsley impersonator.
Get it?! It’s just like Ryan Pelton/Blake Rayne story! They are two aspects of the same man, that’s why they are played by the same man! The funny thing is, no one in the film ever confuses Ryan Wade for Drexel Helmsley. People just tell him “Man, you really look like Drexel Helmsley,” as if they already read the script.
Can you guess how this film will end? I know, you’re probably thinkin’ Ryan Wade will just be content to be a Drexel Helmsley impersonator his whole life and stay out of the church forever, right? Sorry, I can’t spoil a twist like that.
Like an earnest Walk Hard or 30 Rock’s “Jackie Jormp-Jomp,” The Identical plays like someone saw five musician biopics and tried to recreate one without bothering to find a musician first. Some of the not-Elvis songs on the Identical soundtrack include: “Bee Boppin Baby,” “Nashville Tonight,” and “Boogie-Woogie Rock n Roll.” Trust me when I say that Christianized Elvis music is every bit as saccharine and uncomfortable as that sounds. I also like to imagine that instead of a girl who likes to dance, “Bee Boppin Baby” is about a girl at church trying to swat a bee away from her fancy bonnet. Bee boppin baby, summer time too..
The genericness of The Identical is hilarious, but “generic” doesn’t tell the whole story. I’ve never seen a film manage to be both so bland and so bizarre. I call it the ultimate “How did this get made?” movie because it really does inspire you to want to find out. What kind of movie only sort of alludes to the civil rights movement and then spends five minutes of screen time praising the Six Days War? It’s this fascinating combination of totally transparent screenwriting meeting a Byzantine mix of motives. (The answer to the Six Days War question, by the way, is that the Christian music label-owning Marcellinos are Israeli, and appear to be some kind of Zionist evangelical/Jews for Jesus operation).
It’s very obviously a vanity project, but you sit there wondering for who, and why? The best way I can describe it is, imagine if Tommy Wiseau from the The Room was an evangelical Christian Elvis impersonator who made a royalty-free biopic starring himself as twins.
Though actually, it’s even crazier than that. Imagine if that evangelical Christian Elvis impersonating Tommy Wiseau had convinced real, recognizable, famous actors, like Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Seth Green, and Joe Pantoliano to be in his batshit vanity project about a Christian not-Elvis, and now you’re on the right track.
I know, right?
As strange a discovery as The Identical was, and as nauseatingly schmaltzy as it is, I can’t rail against it the same way I would, say, Heaven Is For Real, or Ja Rule’s I’m In Love With A Church Girl (both of which I sat through, Jesus help me). Those cravenly commercial efforts sell the persecutionist and shallow materialist angles to fundamentalist Christianity, respectively. The Identical sells genericized religion the same way it sells genericized rock n roll. Uncomfortable to sit through or listen to, certainly, but the main thrust of its spiritualism is inclusion – respect for Jews and black people. It doesn’t execute this vision especially well, but like a macaroni heart valentine made by a first grader, it’s the thought that counts.
It was clear early on that The Identical had the potential to be a best/worst cult classic in the vein of The Room or Birdemic. And I think we enjoy these movies and don’t feel bad celebrating them not only because there’s an idiosyncratic clumsiness to them, but also because they seem to come from a fairly genuine, innocent place. They have the quality of a puppy that keeps bumping his head on his water dish. Sure, it’s bad at drinking water, but it’s adorable! Only in this case, uh… the puppy is Christian Elvis. Oh, and Seth Green is in it.
GRADE: I give it one Scanners exploding head gif.
†In his almost certainly self-written or publicist-written IMDB bio, Pelton says he chose the stage name “Blake Rayne” as a stage name because it reminded him of “Bruce Wayne.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it definitely reminds me of a gay pornstar. Bruce Wayne is Batman, Blake Rayne sounds like he’d play Batman in the Batman porn parody.