Archive for October 4, 1996

That Thing You Do!

October 4, 1996

tumblr_m4rmx2Wx4K1r3gb6ao1_1280There’s a scene about half an hour into That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks’ debut as a writer-director, that would cement Hanks’ status as a fine filmmaker even if the rest of the movie were sludge (it isn’t). It’s 1964, and a clean-cut band from Erie, Pennsylvania called The Wonders have just released their first single. When it first plays on the radio, we see each of the band members in hysterics as they head for an appliance store (where the drummer works). Hanks lets the scene play out, upping its intensity until it becomes an operetta of joy.

That Thing You Do! is a nostalgic, whistle-clean comedy about a (fictional) band like the dozens of other nice-boy bands that cropped up after The Beatles. Most of these bands had as much longevity as the American rip-offs of the other ’60s British Invasion, the James Bond films. Hanks compounds our awareness of this by the very name he picks for his band: The Wonders, which almost begs to be preceded by “one-hit.”

The one hit, of course, is “That Thing You Do!,” which begins as a sensitive ballad penned by the band’s Lennonesque singer-leader Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech). But when the goofy, jazz-worshipping drummer Guy (Tom Everett Scott) joins The Wonders for a campus music competition, he cranks up the tempo and turns the song into a bouncy rocker. We hear the tune many more times, and it sounds emptier and slicker every time, as Hanks means it to. As The Wonders move into the “big time,” the music takes a back seat to the image — it becomes merely that thing they do. Over and over and over.

Hanks is shrewd to chart the band’s downfall by following the mutation of their one hit from scrappy rock to processed cheese. He’s also good at touching on The Wonders’ inner tensions without letting those tensions usurp the movie. Guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) has his eye on the glitz and babes of Vegas. The unnamed bass player (Ethan Embry) joins the Marines. Most of all, the idealistic Guy and the increasingly cynical Jimmy clash not only over the future of the band, but over Jimmy’s neglected girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler), who’s attracted to Guy’s unassuming sweetness.

Unassuming sweetness may have been Tom Hanks’ middle name in the past, but it doesn’t describe his movie (which is smarter than it lets on, like Clueless) or the character he plays — Mr. White, the record exec who signs The Wonders to his label. Hanks looks pasty and a little reptilian here. When he plays a scene with Tom Everett Scott, who’s a ringer for Hanks circa Bachelor Party, Hanks squints his eyes and sounds rather weaselly. It’s as if the exec were recoiling from a more innocent version of himself — a reminder of lost idealism.

That Thing You Do! is a reminder, too, but it doesn’t get bogged down in sentimental regret. At the end, after the band’s disintegration, Faye tells Guy, “This all wouldn’t have happened if not for you. And I mean that in a good way.” It’s a good way for Hanks to end the movie, which restores dignity to the one-hit wonders — the guys who were in it for the music.

Bound

October 4, 1996

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Every year, it seems, critics go nuts over a movie so lame that I think the critics didn’t go nuts — the critics are nuts. Last year’s endlessly acclaimed (and just plain endless) Heat was a shining example. Bound, which has “nasty, clever thriller” stamped all over it, isn’t nearly as snoozeworthy as Heat, but it left me cold and vaguely annoyed. I can almost hear the writer-director brothers, Andy and Larry Wachowski, making their pitch to the studio:

“It’s about two guys who steal money from the mob.”

“Yeah? So? That’s been done.”

“Okay, so we make ’em two lesbians, and they get naked and have a sex scene.”

“Gentlemen, welcome aboard.”

Bound feels exactly that calculated. It’s been praised for its spin on film noir standards, but all it actually does is reproduce them and arrange them back-to-back, with many look-Ma-I’m-a-director shots (massive close-ups, ostentatious angles) that critics have called “knowing nods to the Coen brothers.” Uh-uh. Sorry. These are knowing rip-offs of the Coen brothers. Always glad to set these things straight.

And let us not forget the lesbians getting naked. These particular daughters of Sappho — ex-con plumber Corky (Gina Gershon) and gangster moll Violet (Jennifer Tilly) — are two guys’ idea of hip, scheming lesbos. They’re immediately attracted to each other, and they both happen to be criminal masterminds who figure out how to pinch $2 million from Violet’s brain-cell-challenged gangster boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano).

If this were done ironically, with a postmodern awareness of how threadbare the premise is (Corky just happens to move next door to Violet and Caesar), Bound might have been as smart and dazzling as it wants to be. As it is, it’s an over-deliberate rewrite of the panting pulp fiction of the ’50s. I’ve read some, and it’s more fun. In fact, if Bound had been set in the ’50s, like one of Showtime’s Rebel Highway goofs a couple of years back, I’d have gone along with it for a while.

But no, the brothers Wachowski (who wrote 1995’s coma-inducing Assassins) are very much ’90s directors, with sex and gore to match (if I never see another Tarantinoid torture scene, I won’t mind a bit). And their actors are no help. Poor Joe Pantoliano — he’s been good in other movies, so I’ll leave him alone. Tilly seems to be going for a ’40s femme fatale effect, but the only thing fatal about her is her grating voice. Gershon sports a ripe smirk and lets her performance ride on it, as she did in Showgirls. After a while, what that smirk really seems to say to us is “I’m getting paid to be here. What’s your excuse?”

Well, our excuse is that we want to be thrilled and entertained and maybe even aroused. But the sex in Bound is boring and impersonal, and the whole thing made me tired of thrillers about guns and money and T&A and dark red blood dripping into white paint (don’t ask). Ooh, how nasty and clever! Nasty, maybe, but as the man said, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid.