New this week:
The Identical—The King of Rock n’ Roll might only have been the Prince of Rock and Roll if his twin brother hadn’t been stillborn. But as Elvis fans know, Jessie Garon Presley didn’t make it into the world alive. This movie wonders what might have happened if both brothers had survived, but nonetheless had been separated at birth.
Dirt-poor struggling parents (Brian Geraghty and Amanda Crew), barely able to care for one of their newborn twins in Depression-era Alabama, keep “Drexel Hemsley” but donate his brother Ryan to a kindly traveling evangelist (Ray Liotta!) and his wife (Ashley Judd) who are unable to have children of their own. The Reverend promises not to tell Ryan about his origin until the biological folks have died. Drexel goes on to become a star, but Ryan’s dad insists on grooming him for the ministry, even though the boy feels stirrings in his hips of a different calling when he hears roadhouse music. People are always telling Ryan how much he resembles Drexel, and eventually he hits the road with what would now be called a tribute act, and cleans up.
There’s an undeniable fairy-tale power to this premise that could have given it a Shakespearean wonder. But The Identical, though it appears to have had a fairly generous budget, comes across amateurish, emasculated, anachronism-riddled and inhibited. I can’t say I found it dull, but it’s been a while since a movie this cringe-inducingly kitschy got a wide release.
The moviemakers may themselves be evangelicals; Ryan is the most chaste and wholesome rock-and-roller imaginable—even Ricky Nelson and Frankie Avalon were bigger bad boys than this guy; it’s possible even Pat Boone was. Commendable though his behavior may be, it misses a major source of the appeal of rock music in general and of Presley in particular.
The movie’s religious interests also show up in the form of several apropos-of-nothing-much shout-outs to the State of Israel, and near the beginning, Rev. Liotta, preaching in a revival tent, tells his flock that black and white, Jew and gentile are all the same in the eyes of God. It’s uncertain if other categories of belief or race are included under this assertion, but even so, I found myself wondering how safe saying this would be, in Alabama in 1935, even for a white preacher.
The twins are both played, as adults, by Blake Rayne, who bears a good-enough-to-get-work-in-Vegas resemblance to the King, both physically and vocally. He’s also a rather sweet and likable screen presence, and the various hairstyles inflicted on him throughout the film increase both our sympathy for him and the comedy value of the movie.
As with That Thing You Do!, the music is ersatz—one of the movie’s many other (presumably unintentional) hilarities comes when the narrator (Ryan’s wife, played by the very cute Erin Cottrell), tells us that rock and roll may have been born the night that Ryan got up and sang in a roadhouse. Then the song he breaks into is presciently titled “Boogie-Woogie Rock n’ Roll"
The Last of Robin Hood—A pop culture icon is much more convincingly embodied in this chronicle of the last years of Errol Flynn. By the mid-‘50s the star was getting a bit mature for swashbuckling even if he hadn’t wrecked himself with booze and other indulgences, which he had. But he was still a name, and a charmer, and managed to win the heart of a young dancer and bit player named Beverly Aadland, who became the last love of his life. His final feature, Cuban Rebel Girls, was a painful low-budget 1959 indie built both as a vehicle for Aadland and as propaganda for Fidel Castro.
Just how young Aadland was when she and Flynn first got together, he supposedly didn’t know, at least at first. Suffice to say she was seriously underage, passing as years older than she really was so that she could work in movies. This was all with the complicity of her hardcore stage mother Florence, once a dancing hopeful herself until an accident claimed one of her legs. Florence eventually became complicit in Beverly’s affair with Flynn, too.
Kevin Kline plays Flynn, Dakota Fanning plays Beverly and Susan Sarandon plays Florence in The Last of Robin Hood. While a few other actors are shooed past the camera—including Max Casella as the young Stanley Kubrick, who reputedly considered Flynn for Humbert Humbert in Lolita—the focus is on the psychodrama between the three leads, and the writing/directing team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland manage it briskly, with a plausible feel for how this dance of ego and desperation and self-delusion and vicarious gratification and, yes, true love could be kept going.
Kline, already 16 years older than Flynn was when he died, looks far better than the star did in the period depicted, but he catches Flynn’s disarming mix of suavity and self-deprecation, and how he could use a hint of rueful insecurity over his faded glamour to his advantage. He’s excellent, but in the long run Fanning and Sarandon carry the movie with their tense, textured interchanges.
The movie is slight, and there are a few scenes—one involves two punks shooting at Sarandon with an air rifle—that teeter precariously on the edge of camp. But The Last of Robin Hood is well-paced, and its period flavor is generated resourcefully on what was probably a pretty modest budget. Best of all, it’s witty without being catty and heartless—it remembers that these people are human beings, and that one of them was a kid.