That Thing You Do!
Screenplay : Tom Hanks
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Tom Everett Scott (Guy Patterson), Liv Tyler (Faye Dolan), Johnathon Schaech (James 'Jimmy' Mattingly II), Steve Zahn (Lenny Haise), Ethan Randall (The Bass Player), Tom Hanks (Mr. White), Charlize Theron (Tina)
"That Thing You Do!" is a movie that remembers with sharp clarity a time in America when cars had fins, pea green and orange were stylish colors, a mop top was the haircut to have, clock radios were the size of small TVs, sunglasses were a new innovation, and kisses still meant something.
In his first stint in the director's chair, actor Tom Hanks has made a snappy little ode to a time when America was at a crossroads -- JFK had been assassinated but no one knew what Vietnam was yet. Teflon was the new miracle product, the birth control pill was still three years away, and Motorola and RCA were competing over who could see the most color TVs. Hanks immerses his movie in this time period, so much that you're almost allowed to forget that the characters are wading in the shallow end of the pool. It's too bad the movie doesn't have a story to compliment all the astute observations it makes about living in the heart of America in 1964.
The movie follows the path of The Wonders, the new teenage craze band that makes it big with their nifty, memorable single "That Thing You Do!" The song is catchy, and as it evolves over time, it punctuates important moments in the movie while charting the quick rise and eventual collapse of the one-hit band that could have been.
The Wonders themselves are musical stereotypes: Jimmy Mattingly, the lead singer and self-proclaimed artistic genius (Johnathon Staech), Lenny Haise, the flaky and eventually annoying guitarist who hopelessly chases any girl who comes into his breathing space (Steve Zahn), and the quiet bassist who has to leave the band early in order to join the Marines (Ethan Embry).
The only characters who borders on being real people are Staech's girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler) and the drummer Guy Patterson, played by newcomer Tom Everett Scott who looks and acts so much like Tom Hanks, it's almost creepy.
Hanks was smart to bring in new actors with fresh faces. He was also smart to give small cameos to a number of amusing figures including director Jonathan Demme (who also co-produced), singer Chris Isaak, Hanks' wife Rita Wilson, and his ex-Bosom Buddies co-star Peter Scalari. And he was even smarter to have all new music composed so we weren't bombarded with golden oldies we've heard a million times.
However, the ironic twist is that the only stumbling block on screen is Hanks himself. Behind the camera he is a capable director, but he horribly miscasts himself as Mr. White, the savvy manager from Play Tone records who takes control of the band and remakes its image. As their controlling force, he must be supportive, enthusiastic, and at times, overbearing and a bit of a jerk. After all, business is business. But Hanks never successfully fills the character because he draws too much attention to himself.
As a writer, Hanks is nothing above average. His script never sets up real characters and situations, and no acceptable reason is given for the forming of the band or its demise. This is a result of Hanks's fundamental error as a freshman writer/director: he's too in love with his own work to make it completely accessible to others.
Unless you have the same passion for the quirks of the mid-1960s, the movie will strike you as passable entertainment, but still trite and superficial. Even the moments of true emotion come across a bit forced because the plot builds them in such an obvious manner, and the physical comedy comes in loud, heavy-handed strokes that fall flat more times than they work.
Although it's refreshing every once in a while to see a movie that embraces something other than violence and mindless sex, it's also a shame it couldn't have been a more satisfying experience.
Reprinted with permission The Baylor Lariat