Finding Graceland
directed by David Winkler
(Largo Entertainment, 1998)

Few if any pop icons have affected 20th-century culture and current events more than Elvis Presley, and few if any actors seem less suited to play him than Harvey Keitel.

That's one of the things that makes Finding Graceland so much fun.

When we first see Elvis (Keitel), he's climbing out of the cab of an 18-wheeler, stopping only to accept the heartfelt thanks of the driver he's been riding with for the past few days. When we next see him, he's standing by the side of the road with a cardboard sign that says simply, "Graceland."

It's hard to know what to make of him just then. A hundred and five minutes later, it's even harder.

Much has happened in between: Elvis has been picked up by a young medical student (Johnathon Schaech) who drives a '59 Cadillac with no driver's door; he picks up two young women of dubious morality who nearly drive the driver from his motel room; and he gets hired at a Mississippi casino to impersonate -- of all people -- Elvis Presley.

Is it chance, or is there a method to his assumed madness? Only Elvis knows for sure, and he's about as revealing as the Book of Revelations.

According to Elvis -- Keitel's Elvis, that is -- the King never died. He'd simply had all the celebrity he could handle. So he left Graceland to wander the Earth, to meet people on their own terms and to offer a hand wherever he could.

Twenty years later, at age 60, he's decided he's ready to go back. He's even called ahead, he tells the driver, so they can have a big dinner waiting for him when he returns: on Aug. 16 -- a date that lives, for Elvis fans, in infamy.

Not everything writer-director David Winkler tries in Finding Graceland works as well as it should.

Schaech blows hot and cold as Byron Gruman, the driver with the deep dark secret who picks up Elvis: too cold in the early going, too warm and fuzzy near the end. And Bridget Fonda is terrific as Ashley the Marilyn Monroe imitator, but barely passable as Ashley, the woman behind the act. It's enough to make you wish she'd never taken off the costume.

In the end, it's up to Keitel to save the day, and he does, performing a bravura rendition of "Suspicious Minds" for a casino crowd and sketching a half comic, wholly serious portrait of Elvis as off-the-wall holy man with only one defense for his questionable methods: they work.

"Everybody needs guidance," Ashley tells a deeply disturbed Byron. "What difference does it make whether you get it from Jesus, Buddha or Elvis?" None whatsoever, it would seem. As long as Keitel's playing Elvis.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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