Thursday, September 04, 2014

"The Identical" — movie review

Movie: The Identical
Length: 107 min
Rated: PG
Starring: Amanda Crew, Ashley Judd, Seth Green, Ray Liotta, Joe Pantoliano, Blake Rayne
Director: Dustin Marcellino

I was offered screening tickets on this movie, which will be released tomorrow, September 5, 2014. The trailer looked iffy, to a jaded and oft-blackened eye. Was this going to be yet another by-the-numbers parody of fundamentalist Christians, written by people who neither personally know nor like any actual Christians? Would the son be all deep and conflicted and "I just gotta follow my dream, Daddy!", and would the father be all "Then roast in Hell, demon-child, with that Hellish rock and roll of yours!"? The trailer sure looked like it could be.

Boy, I'm glad we didn't see that movie.  Oh, sorry — should have said "spoiler alert."

At any rate, despite the trailer, "The Identical" had possibilities, and it had "Date Night" written all over it, so the missus and I escaped to the showing. We were both braced but, as usual, set ourselves to maintain open minds.

The opening scenes were a very strong frame-setter, taking us back to the Great Depression in black and white footage. We are introduced to a couple (the Hemsleys) trying to make a living in a jobless economy, and eventually dealing with the birth of twin boys. Enter pastor Reece Wade (Ray Liotta) and his wife Louise (Ashey Judd), conducting a "revival" in the area. Father attends, and is struck by an idea by inspiration.

Now, here is a typical juncture that touches on my slightly conflicted feelings about the movie. The first words from this southern preacher are very clearly about God's love for people of all races. Whew, one obvious and well-traveled stereotype dodged. Then the preacher slides aside to share personally about his and his wife's disappointment in a recent miscarriage, frustrating their desire to have a child. They're both in tears, and he asks all there to pray for them.

You see? It's a sweet moment, in itself: human, personal. Pastor and wife are treated like multi-dimensional human beings, and likable ones at that. That's very much in the "plus"-column, and at variance from the usual "all-Fundamentalists-are-shallow-hypocritical-hateful-cartoonish-racists" script.

And yet, there's not the least preaching of the Gospel per se, despite the "revival" setting. Not a whiff.

More on that later.

Regardless, this plants an idea with the twins' dad, which eventually is accepted by their mom: give one of the twins to pastor and wife to raise. The Wades are reluctant at first, and they actually try to give money to the destitute Hemsleys to help them (— another welcome step aside from the stereotypical portrayal of all pastors as greedy takers). In the end, the Wades accept the boy, and the Hemsleys conduct a fake funeral to explain the twin's absence.

This becomes the frame for a sort of "What if Elvis Presley's stillborn identical twin had lived, and had been raised by different parents?" story. Drexel, the boy raised by his birth parents, becomes a famously successful rock singer, whose style and look and trajectory is very like Presley — down to concerts, TV spots and corny movies.

And what of the other twin, Ryan? There are pleasantly authentic scenes of Pastor Wade trying to get little Ryan to memorize his Bible (only singing the verses works for him), and attend church. Again, the parents are sympathetic and likable, but no specific Gospel is preached. One never really finds out what Ryan believes. (In fact, one never finds out a great deal of what the preacher-father believes.) Ryan tries Bible school, but he doesn't feel "the call." What Ryan does feel is love for rock and roll. He goes to a "speakeasy," sings, and eventually (post-military-stint) finds a career doing concerts, playing unknown twin brother Drexel's music. Ryan looks and sounds so much like Drexel that, in fact, that he is billed as... wait for it... "The Identical."

Both twins are played by newcomer Blake Rayne. He's adequate and plenty likable, and one isn't surprised to learn that he won an Elvis impersonator competition.

So, what'd we think of the movie?

We liked it, basically. And we recommend it. It really is a "family-friendly" movie. There isn't a bad word or salacious syllable or image in it. We chuckled a number of times.

While we never really learn what Ryan thinks about Jesus or the Gospel, he does love and appreciate his parents who raised him, and they love him. To the end, Liotta and wife are sympathetic characters, and virtually every stereotype is dodged. The only truly odd thing about them is that Liotta's character ages dramatically — but his wife stays pretty much the same.

Yet, as characters, they are easy to sympathize with. Usually it is obvious that the screenwriters viscerally hate what they think Christians are in general, and what they think clergy are in particular. In this case, none of that could be found here.

The Identical won't make the starry annals of all-time great moviemaking, but it is fun and pleasant. There are a number of genuine laughs. Loved the presence of Seth Green and Joe Pantoliano, both of whom are a lot of fun and clearly had a good time with their roles.

The survey I was given after the screening asked questions along the lines of whether I'd recommend taking church groups or in other ways making the movie a church activity. My answer was no. I was astonished to learn that pastors have developed some sort of teaching to parallel the movie. I don't see it as having any very particular Gospel or Biblical tie-in whatever.

That said, it would make for a pleasant family watch, with a very 50s feel. After that, you could discuss what was missing (HEL-LO! THE GOSPEL), and the fact that for all his obvious love for his son, Dad seemed a lot more concerned that Ryan feel "the call," and a lot less concerned that he have saving faith in Christ.

Final word: worst possible reading. This has been a charitable review. However, the advertising really stresses the follow your dreams theme, and injects the notion that if God is in your dreams, nothing can stand against them. This, thankfully, is not as heavy-handedly preached in the movie. I don't even recall Ryan making that connection once... and that's a good thing.

While non-Christians apparently love that message, I think the promoters are unwise to stress it insofar as they want to reach out to Christians. Because that idea is in fact peddled today as a substitute for the Gospel, and it bears no resemblance. The Gospel is about my ruin in sin, my alienation from God, and the truly amazing work of God in Jesus Christ to reconcile sinners to Himself. None of that is in the movie. That the Christians are likable, real people is a refreshing change in a movie, and that's worth something.

But it isn't the Gospel.


Herding Grasshoppers said...

Ah, thanks for the review. Hadn't heard of the movie yet, but good to know it's family friendly, yet sadly sans gospel.


DJP said...

What has shocked Valerie and me is looking at some of the vitriolic secular reviews that focus on this movie's Zionism. Oh no, a movie with pro-Israel characters! How was this allowed?

I don't think it even particularly stood out to us.

Doug Hibbard said...

Looks like it will be a good one to catch at the drive-in here in Almyra.

Or,if I get the brakes fixed on the van, we'll just sit on the couch.