Exploiting the Holidays: Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #14 The Identical (2014)
Welcome, friends, to the fourteenth blockbuster entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It's the column where I give the Christ-like exemplars of compassion who make a one time, one hundred dollar pledge to this site’s Patreon page an opportunity to choose a movie I must watch, then write about.
It’s been a great column so far. I’ve gotten lots of great pieces out of it, have been introduced to amazing movies I might never have seen otherwise, like Rad and Miami Connection and it's helped fill the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place coffers with much-needed moolah at a time when new donations are at an all-time low.
I recently visited the surreal and exciting world of amateur Christian action thrillers with the hilariously, adorably inept My Best Friend, an allegorical unintentional laugh riot about a President who lays down his own life in order to bring an asshole atheist Secret Service agent closer to Jesus.
My Best Friend was so inept it makes Neil Breen’s Pass Thru (an early Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 entry) look like a masterpiece of virtuoso craftsmanship by comparison. The Identical, in sharp contrast, has a budget, production values and actual movie stars. It looks and sounds like a real movie but God bless its amateur soul.
Though Ashley Judd, Ray Liotta, Joe Pantaliano and Seth Green are the names in the cast, the insanely challenging, just plain insane dual role of rock and roll megastar/Elvis double Drexel Helmsley and his long-lost identical twin brother Ryan Wade goes to Blake Rayne.
When he starred in The Identical, Rayne was a forty year old non-actor and former website developer whose life changed forever when he won an Elvis impersonation contest in the late 1990s, just as his character here wins a Drexel Helmsley impersonation contest with more than a little help from his DNA.
Rayne looks and sounds just like the King. I’m sure he’s a top notch Elvis impersonator but he is hilariously out of his depth here playing the mesmerizingly bland lead character from a 16 year old preacher’s kid hopelessly in love with black music who looks suspiciously like a forty year old man to a forty year old veteran musician who looks like a poorly preserved old timer entering his fourth decade.
Rayne also plays Drexel, who is introduced swigging scotch from a crystal decanter and rocking a look that's equal parts late-period Elvis and Gene Simmons dressed up like Billy Jack for Halloween.
Drexel and Ryan were born to a desperately poor but God-fearing Southern couple during the Great Depression that decided to give Ryan to a preacher named Reece (Ray Liotta) and his wife Louise (Ashley Judd) with hopes of giving their son a better life. Reece is a good man, a man of faith and a man of the Lord, but he’s played by Ray Liotta, so he seems like the kind of guy who might snap and beat you to death with his fists if he thinks you’re straying from a Godly path.
Ryan is given to the couple under the condition that he must never know the the dark truth behind his birth, or the existence of his identical twin. That would less of a problem if Drexel didn’t rocket to superstardom as a rock star exactly like Elvis Presley while his long lost identical twin fell head over heels in love with that boogie woogie rock and roll music he hears at otherwise all-black honky tonks with his buddy and musical soulmate Dino (Seth Green) and gets the itching to perform deep down in his hopelessly white bread soul.
God bless Seth Green. He is the only person in the movie who realizes he’s in a ridiculous unintentional camp comedy and embraces the absurdity of his character and the movie. It’s as if he’s appearing in Walk Hard and every other actor in the movie is stuck in a ridiculous version of the histrionic musical biopics Jake Kasdan’s cult classic is sending up.
True, Ryan does find it a bit odd that there’s a huge megastar his exact age who looks and sounds and sings and moves exactly like him. He also experiences a strange psychic connection with Drexel, the kind more common to identical twins than a superstar and his lookalike, soundalike, move-a-like biggest fan but he’s not the curious type so he just accepts it as a weird coincidence.
The Identical is rooted equally in the mythology of Elvis Presley, whose twin brother was stillborn, and the Neil Diamond remake of The Jazz Singer, with Ray Liotta channeling Laurence Olivier’s hammy theatricality as a stern patriarch who wants his son to follow a Godly path when all his son wants to do is perform the devil’s music for secular audiences.
Ryan is a nice, sober, God-fearing man. Other than looking and sounding exactly like Elvis Presley, that’s his sole defining feature. He also loves music, particularly the music of Drexel Helmsley, and his life and career change forever when he enters and wins a Drexel Helmsley lookalike contest attended by Drexel himself.
What’s Drexel like? That’s a good question, the movie never answers because it’s screamingly obvious that Drexel is exactly like Elvis Presley. He moves like Elvis Presley. He sings like Elvis Presley. He drives the girls wild like Elvis Presley and indulges in vices like Elvis Presley. Pop history has done the film’s work for it: Drexel is Elvis, and that’s all there is to it.
Deep into the film Ryan meets and has his life and career transformed by a character that is ridiculous and preposterous even by the standards of a film defined by those qualities. He’s an oily-slick agent who wins over Ryan with honeyed promises like “I’m gonna have you playing every state fair in the region!”
He’s so successful packaging Ryan as superstar Drexel Helmsley impersonator “The Identical” that in a montage sequence that accidentally plays like a deleted scene from Top Secret!, the agent is seen throwing giant stacks of high-denomination bills in the air in a celebratory fashion. That’s when you know you’ve made it: when the money is coming in so fast and so furious that it all but demands to be tossed joyously in the air by sleazy money people.
Ah, but Ryan’s time in the shadow of the spotlight is short. Soon the greedy agent hollers at his hip-swiveling money-maker, “You’re getting fat and lazy. You’re not hungry anymore!”
Yes, Ryan is clearly too doughy and apathetic to really throw himself into the sacred business of performing somebody else’s songs exactly as they perform them for an audience willing to settle for a substitute rather than the real thing.
The agent character then says something that elevates the film from garden-variety bad movie to a b-movie howler for the ages.
When our humble hero insists that he wants to play his own songs in concert, not just the songs of the dude he somehow doesn’t realize is his long-lost identical twin brother, the agent sneeringly yells at him that there’s only one Beatles, there’s only one Drexel Helmsley—and only one Elvis Presley.
Cue Record scratch sound effect.
WHAT? What in the holy motherfucking name of Elvis Our Lord and Savior is going on with that motherfuckery?
For starters, the agent’s angry claim is transparently false. It’s true that there’s only one Beatles. Their name is Oasis and they’ve got some smashing tunes, love, including “Wonderwall”, which I’m learning to play on acoustic guitar.
But there are most assuredly two Drexel Helmsleys. There’s the famous motherfucker we get glimpses of looking and acting exactly like Elvis Presley, but there’s a second Drexel Helmsley in the form of his identical brother, who looks and sings and moves exactly like his identical twin.
The agent is even more wrong about Elvis. There are only slightly fewer Elvises in The Identical then there are in previous Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 entry 3000 Miles to Graceland. Who wants to slide me a hundred dollars to see Honeymoon in Vegas so we can make this a trilogy?
There’s the real Elvis, of course, who we just learned exists in this world and is so incredibly successful that he’s mentioned in the same breath as fellow titans like The Beatles and also Drexel Helmsley. But there’s also a second Elvis in the form of the recently mentioned Drexel Helmsley and a third Elvis in Ryan Wade. It’s a good thing only one of the Elvis, I mean Drexel impersonators who compete against Ryan in the contest that launches him to quasi-stardom actually looks and sings anything like Drexel, instead of doing a bad Jim Morrison impression, or things would get really silly and confusing.
If Elvis exists in this world, then how can a musician from the same region, with the same backstory, the same looks, the same moves, the same film career and the same compulsions have a career as anything other than an Elvis impersonator, let alone be as successful as his clone?
Furthermore, if Ryan is the world’s biggest Drexel Helmsley fan, shouldn’t he love Elvis just as much, since they're pretty much the exact same person? Does Ryan ever wonder if he’s Elvis’ long-lost identical twin? He should! They look not just similar but identical.
Things only get crazier from there. Ryan finds out the dark secret of his birth and his connection to his favorite pop star and Ray Liotta gets to really lean into his wonderfully misguided tribute to Laurence Olivier in The Jazz Singer with an epic fit of grief-yelling.
Ryan heads to his identical twin brother’s grave and in an astonishing coincidence, his real biological father happens to be there at the exact same moment, pouring his heart out to what he imagines is a stranger, since he talks and talks and talks without bothering to look around and face the person he’s monologuing at.
When he finally does, his long-lost son tells him, “It’s me, daddy! Dexter Ryan Helmsley!”
Everything comes together for Dexter after that. Because he believed in Jesus or some such horse shit, he not only attained closure with his dad, but he became a massive star singing both his own songs and his brother’s material, somehow without ever revealing to the public that he’s Drexel’s actual twin, and not just a twin in every conceivable way. AND, because Jesus loves babies, Drexel and his wife have a fuck-ton of them even though his wife earlier fretted via narration just after the Six Day War, “Israel won that war, a modern day miracle. But our miracle, to have a family of our own, apparently wasn’t meant to be. The doctors said Ryan and I would never have one of these precious gifts.”
The real miracle is that Ryan never realized that he was an identical twin of one huge pop star and a perfect clone of a whole different rock icon.
The doctors may have told Ryan and Jenny they’d never have one of those precious gifts known as babies but a certain Dr. Jesus decided that they deserved a family.
Oh, and that chai that Drexel wore around his neck? It's because his mom was Jewish, making him, and Ryan, by Jewish law more Jewish than I am. This last minute revelation has absolutely no bearing on anything but it did help elevate the movie's WTF level from "absolutely insane" to "Are you fucking kidding me? The Fake Elvises are both secretly half-Jewish? What were they putting in your Dr. Pepper when you were writing this shit?"
It’s possible that people of faith will be so filled with Christ’s love that they’ll be able to suspend disbelief and somehow overcome the screaming cognitive dissonance engendered by the film’s premise in order to appreciate its pious message. Yet despite what the film insists, there are limits to the power of faith. Believing in Jesus is one thing. Believing in a movie this exquisitely preposterous is another matter completely.
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