That Thing You Do!
There’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.