The promise of seeing Harvey Keitel strutting his stuff impersonating Elvis will at the very least attract attention to “Finding Graceland,” but this indie effort never manages to develop into more than a curiosity item. Keitel overplays the part, often hamming up the Southern accent, and the film adds little to the already too crowded field of pop artifacts surrounding the Elvis mythology. Pic is unlikely to find much of an audience, although hardcore fans of the King will turn out, if only because this is the first dramatic feature to include a scene shot inside the Graceland mansion.
First-time feature helmer David Winkler has constructed a rather routine road movie about an unlikely couple of guys on their way to Graceland. Byron Gruman (Johnathon Schaech) is driving through New Mexico in a dilapidated blue 1959 Cadillac convertible when he spots a strange hitchhiker (Keitel). He’s initially reluctant to pick up the dude in shades and pink sports jacket, but he eventually agrees to take him at least part of the way to Memphis. The hitchhiker introduces himself as Elvis and announces that he’s headed back home to mark the anniversary of his death on Aug. 16. Byron is not buying any of this , sure that “Elvis” is just another deluded nutcase.
Byron is a pretty morose type, still in a funk over the accidental death of his wife, Beatrice (Gretchen Mol), in a car accident a year earlier. In fact, he hasn’t had the stamina to repair his car since she died, and he’s rolling down the freeway in a beat-up vehicle that doesn’t even have a door on the driver’s side. He drops Elvis off as soon as he can, but ultimately finds himself unable to shake off his odd new acquaintance, who turns up late one night at Byron’s motel and maneuvers himself back into the young man’s road trip.
Eventually, Byron becomes a little more sympathetic toward Elvis, in part because latter seems to have a hypnotic effect on most of the people he meets: A state trooper who pulls them over lets them off once he comes to the conclusion this really is the King, a diner waitress swoons for the grizzled Elvis wannabe, and a bunch of garage mechanics work wonders on the old convertible to show their gratitude to Elvis.
In rural Mississippi, the duo stumble across a gaudy casino where they meet a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, Ashley (Bridget Fonda), who helps bring Byron out of his shell.
It’s a significant problem that Winkler plays this all with deadly seriousness when the material could have benefited tremendously from a lighter tone. At the casino, for example, Elvis takes the stage and belts out a flaccid version of the Presley chestnut “Suspicious Minds,” decked out in a sequined blue jumpsuit and complete with the requisite karate kicks; the scene cries out for some comic perspective. Similarly, Elvis turns into something of a faith healer when they finally arrive at Graceland and take part in a candlelight procession to mark the anniversary of Elvis’ death. There is a sanctimonious, cloying sentimentality to the writing in the final section which further erodes the film’s impact.
Keitel is not particularly effective as this troubled, middle-aged man who believes he is Elvis and spends much of the time solemnly dishing out aphoristic advice. Schaech is something of a blank as Byron, both when he’s grieving in the early going and when he’s supposed to be blossoming emotionally in the last act. Fonda is more memorable as Ashley and, onstage in full sexy regalia, as Marilyn, but it’s a relatively small part. Mol, following her tiny, underwritten part in “Rounders,” has an almost nonexistent role here, appearing only in brief flashback sequences.
Elliot Davis’ lensing captures the stark beauty of the Southern landscape and includes some nice images of downtown Memphis. The soundtrack contains a mix of classic and more up-to-date rock tracks, including three original Presley tunes. Priscilla Presley, the singer’s ex-wife and president of Elvis Presley Enterprises, serves as executive producer, and she secured the cooperation from the Presley estate to film at Graceland.