Director: Dustin Marcellino
Screenwriter: Howard Klausner
Cast: Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Blake Rayne, Erin Cottrell, Joe Pantoliano
Original Songs: Jerry Marcellino & Yochanan Marcellino

When Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935, he had a twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, who was stillborn. By all accounts Elvis mourned for that lost brother throughout his life, frequently visiting the baby’s grave and engaging in long, necessarily one-sided conversations with his ghostly womb mate whenever and wherever the impulse arose. According to certain more indiscreet or possibly bribable members of his permanent entourage, the so-called Memphis Mafia, Elvis rationalized not only the intensity of his ambitions but the extravagances of his lifestyle in part because he felt he was living for two.

The 2014 fantasy film THE IDENTICAL is built around the interesting premise, "What if Elvis’s twin brother had lived, been regretfully given away by impoverished parents, and grown up in an entirely different adoptive family?"

Naturally this work of alternative history couldn’t be about anyone named Presley without a lot of permissions and rights no one was ever going to grant, so the first three letters were changed to come up with Hemsley. The screenplay also pointedly includes the explicit line of dialogue, "There’s only one Elvis," just to make everything legally clear. Still, the dates, locations, and events of the screen narrative parallel the real life Elvis story almost exactly, with a few relatively minor fictionalized differences such as being born in Decatur, Alabama, rather than Tupelo, Mississippi, and the manner of his tragically early death. The famous brother, nicknamed The Dream rather than The King, is rarely on screen, his life mostly reflected in the reactions and yearnings of the unknown identical twin who has no idea of their connection.

Pretty darn good idea for a movie, right? I certainly thought so and still do after seeing this imaginative, enjoyable and well-produced film with a screenplay by Howard Klausner, who wrote SPACE COWBOYS (2000), director/star Clint Eastwood’s nifty Geezers in Space movie co-starring Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, and Donald Sutherland. Mr. Klausner also wrote the screenplay for the upcoming childhood to White House biopic, REAGAN, not yet in production, which will hopefully be a lot more accurate and positive than James Brolin Streisand’s version of the Gipper for television.

The high quality of THE IDENTICAL does not by any means end with the script. First time director Dustin Marcellino delivers an extremely professional piece of work. The performances are solid, the camera angles inventive, the pacing good, the story compelling, and the overall production values quite excellent. Mr. Marcellino and his co-producers (several of whom share his last name, three generations of Marcellinos having worked on this picture) not only put together an excellent cast, but also hired equally talented people to handle costumes, production design, sound, music, cinematography, editing, and all the other technical categories. Despite being a regional operation as geographically and spiritually distant from Hollywood and New York as it is possible to be, this film is a first class production all the way.

While the movie is certainly not a masterpiece for the ages–I’m not trying to overrate it here–THE IDENTICAL is a good entertaining film with surprising depth on several levels that call for and will repay multiple viewings, thereby passing my most important personal test for quality. If I want to see a picture again, it’s good. All this being the case, it is my sad duty to report that THE IDENTICAL received from the critical establishment some of the most vicious and excoriating reviews I can remember for a film of comparable quality and professionalism. The film averaged only one star out of five to score a mere 7% positive rating by the professional critics tabulated on Rotten Tomatoes, that online film blog embodiment of the liberal hive mind. Perhaps daunted by this drubbing, the film seems to have been pulled from theaters with unseemly haste, but it can be streamed or downloaded from Amazon or purchased on DVD from Deep Discount.

Significantly, however, the film received a 71% positive rating (3.5 stars or higher) from the registered users on Rotten Tomatoes–in other words, film loving members of the general public. Not for the first time do we thus see an enormous disconnect between the people of this country and our self-appointed and highly politicized elites. The most positive comment I’ve found in an establishment critique came at the very end of the New York Times review: "…yet the movie’s earnest infectiousness is tough to deny." Well, you may wonder, why should anyone want to deny THE IDENTICAL’s contagious emotional appeal? We’ll get to that later, but it’s significant that this grudging concession comes only after the critic nastily compares the film’s most touching, tenderhearted, and poignantly ironic incident, a scene difficult to watch without tears (naturally the NYT guy considers it "silly"), to the pseudo-documentary parody, WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY.

As THE IDENTICAL opens in 1972 we find the Elvis figure, Drexel Hemsley, being driven in a stretch limousine through the early morning cotton fields of his childhood. Memories overwhelm him to the point that he pours himself a stiff drink of whiskey. As Drexel dulls his pain, the film dissolves to the backstory, beginning with his newlywed parents in the depths of the Great Depression. The mother is portrayed by the lovely Amanda Crew (SILLICON VALLEY) and the father by the powerful young actor Brian Geraghty, most familiar to me as the homicidally ambitious FBI agent Warren Knox on BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

When Helen Hemsley gives birth to twin sons Drexel and Dexter, their unemployed dad William is thrown into complete despair over having two new mouths to feed instead of one. Wandering off into the night, he happens upon a traveling tent revival being held in an open field and walks into the meeting, where he learns that the preacher and his wife (Ray Liotta and Ashley Judd) have just suffered the tragedy of a third miscarriage, and Reverend Reece Wade is no longer willing to risk the life of his beloved Louise on another attempt. William Hemsley conceives the idea of giving one of his boys to the childless couple. Though initially outraged at the very suggestion, Helen Hemsley agrees to pray about the matter. The next morning she astonishes her husband by saying she feels the leading of the Lord to accept the plan.

Thus it is that Rev. and Mrs. Wade drive off with one of the twins without any legal niceties being observed. The Wades return to their home church in Tennessee where everyone assumes the infant they’ve named Ryan Wade is their own expected newborn. The Hemsleys, meanwhile, bury an empty box in a grave for their lost twin. William Hemsley has written a letter to Dexter, which he hands to the preacher while extracting a promise not to reveal the truth of Dexter’s identity to the boy until both William and Helen have died. Reece Wade dedicates his new son to the service of God. The pastor’s yearning for a son to follow him into the ministry will become a source of conflict in later years.

The older Drexel and Ryan/Dexter are portrayed in his first film by Blake Rayne, a well known Elvis impersonator who not only resembles the King of Rock and Roll physically but does a more than passable imitation of Elvis’s moves, mannerisms, and voice. He does his own singing of the lively original songs written for the film and does it quite well. The real life Elvis Presley, of course, was a genuine prodigy with perfect pitch and a nearly three octave vocal range from a baritone low G to the tenor high B, plus a falsetto that could extend all the way to at least a D flat.

Not only was Elvis’s voice stunning, but he could also put the emotions of a song across as well as Frank Sinatra or any of the great crooners. That’s why no one should be surprised when great singers turn out to be good actors, as Elvis certainly was. For proof, check out any of his early films where he worked with well-written scripts and first class directors, including JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957, director Richard Thorpe), KING CREOLE (1958, Michael Curtiz), WILD IN THE COUNTRY (1961, Philip Dunne), KID GALAHAD (1962, Phil Karlson), and especially his performance as the doomed halfbreed in FLAMING STAR (1960), a genuine western masterpiece directed by the great Don Siegel with one of the most beautiful and emotionally overwhelming final shots in the history of cinema.

Obviously Mr. Rayne must have felt extremely intimidated in his own first role on screen, and he particularly credits costar Ray Liotta for his help and encouragement. In my opinion, Rayne delivers a touching and believable performance that carries the picture.

People are constantly telling Ryan that he looks just like the famous Drexel. Having grown up manifesting a glorious talent for music, Ryan discovers an almost psychic connection with the singer. Watching him on television, Ryan finds he can anticipate his every move, physical and musical. He even thinks he knows what the superstar is thinking at any particular moment. Years later, having married the only girl he’s ever loved (the very appealing Erin Cottrell who happens to have played the main character in a film I wrote), Ryan eventually wins the $25,000 first prize in a Drexel Hemsley impersonation contest, which leads to his being signed to do performances as a Drexel impersonator in country fairs and other venues all over the country.

Eventually he becomes financially successful enough to insist on performing songs he’s written himself, the one thing that distinguishes him from his world famous doppelganger. When a Nashville producer offers Ryan $50,000 to purchase an original song for the next Drexel Hemsley album, rather than release the composer and lyricist’s own recording, Ryan walks away from a sure deal with the comment, "Some things are more important than money."

With this remark by Ryan, I believe we arrive at the crux of the offense committed by THE IDENTICAL against the values of the contemporary entertainment establishment and of all those suppliants, brown nosers, and media consorts who do obeisance at the feet of its vast leftist idolatry. Some things are more important than money? In Hollywood? In New York or London or Bollywood? Are you kidding me? Dude, nothing is more important than money and success! Well, maybe with sex and fame mixed in to greater or lesser degrees, but worldly achievement is all of a piece. Who is this loser hillbilly character to assert there are more important things? This redneck clown who’s never slept with anybody but his own wife? It’s not only laughable, it’s downright sacrilegious! It’s blasphemous! Yes, and there you have it. The real reason for all the critical outrage, I am convinced, is ultimate spiritual.

Most people of leftist perspective and thus nearly all players in the higher echelons of the entertainment industry, especially the wealthiest and most successful, are deeply invested in the concept of an accidental universe. In the absence of a Creator to whom men and women are necessarily accountable, all ethics and morality become relative. Every man is free to do that which is right in his own eyes. Any challenge to this philosophical perspective is sufficiently disturbing to rouse its liberal adherents to fury. How could anyone with a brain dare to fly in the face of the comforting Darwinian assumptions? Nearly all materialists are uncomfortable with nearly all religions, but make no mistake about it, the real enemy, the one such persons hate as the greatest threat to radical materialism, is most definitely Judeo-Christian religion. And that hatred, I believe, is the root of all this hostility to a harmless little film like THE IDENTICAL, a hostility so virulent as to blind such viewers to its many good qualities.

The best one volume explication–and certainly the funniest–of liberalism as a jealous secular religion is Ann Coulter’s GODLESS: The Church of Liberalism, which can be found here with a generous excerpt from the first chapter, "On the Seventh Day, God Rested and Liberals Schemed." Ms. Coulter convincingly demonstrates that liberalism is a tax-supported religion that uses the public schools to brainwash the young. The money quote: "Liberals love to boast that they are not ‘religious,’ which is what one would expect to hear from the state-sanctioned religion. Of course liberalism is a religion. It has its own cosmology, its own miracles, its own beliefs in the supernatural, its own churches, its own high priests, its own saints, its own total worldview, and its own explanation of the existence of the universe. In other words, liberalism contains all the attributes of what is generally known as ‘religion’." Ann explains each of these specific assertions in the rest of the book.

Early in the first act of THE IDENTICAL, therefore, when the distressed young father stumbles into that tent revival meeting, my first thought was, "Oh, boy, here we go again." Naturally I assumed we were about to witness the usual hit and run on devout Christians that we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. I was both astonished and delighted that the Wades and Hemsleys are treated with dignity and their beliefs with respect. True, Ray Liotta’s Pastor Wade is a typical screamer who yells a lot in the pulpit, but that’s a realistic portrayal of a type familiar to any Baptist who grew up south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The preacher continues to pressure Ryan to follow him into the ministry, but after a heart to heart with Ashley Judd as his understanding mother, the young man finally has the gumption to say, "Daddy, I just don’t feel it. That’s your calling, not mine." Though initially heartbroken, the preacher eventually grows enough to admit that music is the gift that seems to be built genetically right into his son’s DNA. The way this conflict and the crisis of identity play out over the rest of the story proves extremely satisfying.

Speaking of genetics brings us to an additional "religious" point. The birth mother of the two twins in the film, like the real life Gladys Presley, was of Jewish descent though a believing Christian. Since Jewishness is matrilineal, this means that Elvis Presley himself was technically Jewish, and it’s easy to find webpages devoted to this fact, of which he was apparently not only fully aware but quite proud, often wearing a medallion combining the cross and the star of David and having such a design placed on his beloved mother’s gravestone. When the Hemsleys in the movie give Dexter away, he is wearing a little necklace with just such a medallion, so that his adoptive parents are aware of the Jewish connection.

This pays off years later during the Six Day War, when Ray Liotta loudly urges his congregation to pray for the Jews, the state of Israel, and the peace of Jerusalem in fulfillment of New Testament commands to love the Chosen People. Though I read at least one Christian review that criticized this scene as interesting but irrelevant, I think it is profoundly important, especially today as we see a worldwide revival of anti-Semitism, with Israel compassed about with enemies and a hostile American administration in the White House. For those of us who have been spiritually grafted into Abraham’s family through faith in Jesus Christ, there is absolutely no place for anti-Semitism in biblically based Christianity.

This discussion is not meant to imply that THE IDENTICAL is some kind of overtly religious, spiritual or Christian film, except in the very mildest way of an accurate portrayal of a certain subculture of believers. There is no evangelistic message except to imply that Ryan/Dexter lives a happier life because he never achieves a worldly success great enough to tear him away from the values he learned as a child. After his famous twin’s untimely death, the hitherto teetotaling survivor, sitting in a bar stricken with grief over the brother he now knows about, is right at the verge of taking his first potentially addicting drink of whiskey when he is stopped by hearing his name called out by a friendly stranger. Coming as it does, this is a possibly lifesaving coincidence of supernaturally perfect timing, which we as an audience are free to interpret as a typically fortuitous intervention by the Holy Spirit looking out for one of His own.

All this is quietly touching and not very preachy, but it’s apparently enough to set the critics’ teeth on edge, which is their loss, not ours.

Actress Ashley Judd, who plays Ryan’s adoptive mother, is a direct descendent of one of the Mayflower Pilgrims portrayed in my historical novel, THE SECOND THANKSGIVING, A Novel of Plymouth 1623, which is why she’s mentioned along with her ancestor in the Historical Note at the back of the book.

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