Sometimes we just don't appreciate what we're given, and Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do! joins his unheralded Joe Versus the Volcano as a movie destined for major rediscovery. In 1996 a modest picture about a bunch of basically happy 1964 kids riding a hit single to fleeting fame wasn't exactly edgy material. It had no drugs, rough sex or even any swearing in its mix. After two Oscar wins Hanks was convinced by his Philadelphia director Jonathan Demme to write and direct on his own, and the result reflects Hanks' winning, fun-loving personality. The worst thing that happens in That Thing You Do! is that some of the characters hurt the feelings of some of the other characters.
Hanks' buoyant script riffs on the old legend of the 'one hit wonder.' In the sixties era that began with Kennedy and ended with Woodstock, the variety of 'new sounds' was far more exciting than the interchangeable pop hits of today. The airwaves were refreshed weekly with catchy pop or novelty tunes that caught public attention, even as their makers remained unknown or seemed to disappear. Everyone remembers the 'oldies' but one must look in reference books to find out what happened to some of the musicians that recorded them. Hanks tells the age-old story of a garage band with middling aspirations that can't believe their wild luck when their one single -- taped in a church -- suddenly climbs the Billboard charts.
Originally labeled with words like 'cute' and 'endearing', That Thing You Do! revives the idea that pleasing light entertainment has a place on movie screens. Tom Hanks invents a peppy group called the 'One-ders' (commonly mispronounced as the 'O-needers') that succeeds by a series of happy flukes. Focused on his own talent, the songwriting Jimmy insists that his tune be a slow ballad, and only the intervention of the impulsive Guy makes it into a crowd-pleaser by upping the tempo. It's all about the one song in which the kids' special spirit comes together. With the addition of Guy as the catalyst to hip-dom, the Oneders hit just the right note of unplanned magic.
Tom Hanks' script nails the group dynamic that transforms the (re-named) Wonders overnight, capturing the wild emotional rush of pop success. Jimmy, Guy and their quiet-but-steady bass player dance and whoop like children when their song is played on the radio. The former smart-ass Lenny is smart enough to know a miracle when it happens -- he spends the rest of the movie encouraging his fellows to appreciate the gift while it lasts. Guy expects nothing and is surprised when Mr. White hands him a pair of sunglasses and encourages him to play 'the cool one.' Jimmy has the talent but he's also a self-absorbed serious artist type, the kind that thinks the band revolves around him. He also takes his adoring girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler) for granted. Faye is the classic enabler, the girlfriend who makes sandwiches for everyone and doesn't realize that the love of her life considers her an accessory.
Fox's Tom Hanks' Extended Cut restores about 20 minutes of material, but That Thing You Do! does not seem a minute too long. The extra footage is all fun character stuff, including an entire subplot about Guy's beautiful girlfriend Tina. As Tina is played by Charlize Theron, we understand immediately why she's back in. Tina's scenes are funny in a true-to-life way: while Guy is wondering why his phone calls go unanswered, Tina's out on dream dates with her young dentist (Keith Neubert), who looks like Mr. Universe in a white doctor's tunic. We get more details of the Wonders' rise to fame and fortune, more mingling with the other members of Play-Tone's stable of stars. In a film loaded with cute moments, the cutest is 'the bass player's' sweet romance with one of the 'Chantrellines.' He's so shy, he has to ask Faye to introduce him.
That Thing You Do! pays off in all aspects. It captures the blinding, I-can't-believe-it thrill of pop success and the shock that comes when the magic dream self-destructs in only a matter of a few hours. The lesson that anything can happen leads the boys to leap at their dreams, personal goals that can be as intoxicatingly futile as running away to a wild Las Vegas marriage with an ex-Playboy bunny. Both Jimmy and Guy stay true to their natures when the bubble bursts, and Guy sees new possibilities when he meets one of his Jazz-legend idols. Faye sustains the worst emotional hit, but even though the one record is the beginning and ending of the Wonders, That Thing You Do! contrives a happy ending for all.
Hanks and his producers Demme, Gary Goetzman and Edward Saxon (of The Silence of the Lambs) populate That Thing You Do! with a delightful cast. Tom Hanks carries the major role of the manager shepherding the Wonders through the maze of the Big Time, which he does in a marvelously humane way. Holmes Osborne is Guy's hopeless dad, Alex Rocco an obnoxious record mogul and Giovanni Ribisi the drummer who breaks his arm so that Ringo, I mean, Guy, can get his big break. Rita Wilson is a b-girl at the Blue Note jazz club who thinks she has Guy cornered for the night, until she finds out he's another (sigh) jazz fan.
Curiously, both Johnathon Schaech (Welcome to Woop Woop) and Tom Everett Scott (E.R.), the promising male leads, have had busy but non-stratospheric careers. The true winners among the cast are Liv Tyler and Charlize Theron, both of which are now household names. And Tom Hanks sort of slipped sideways for a few years, into overblown prestige pictures for Steven Spielberg. We wish he'd write and direct more comedies. On the screen and in the careers of its cast, That Thing You Do! can be appreciated as a meditation on the vagaries of show biz fame and fortune.
Fox's two-disc Tom Hanks Extended Version of That Thing You Do! covers most bases, although it doesn't have an anticipated cast commentary track. Disc one includes both the extended and theatrical cuts, which will please those viewers that prefer the movie as it was. Disc two has an old HBO First Look show plus a number of new featurettes. A reunion piece presents returning stars Johnathon Schaech, Tom Everett Scott, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry and a party-ready Charlize Theron, who gets into a briefly flirtatious discussion of her make-out scenes with Scott. In addition to a standard making-of featurette, we're given a piece on Hanks' vision of the Wonders and a funny segment about the group's publicity tour in Japan, which got off to a clumsy start when Scott forgot to take his passport on the plane. A "Feel Alright" music video uses scenes from the film, including bits not seen even in the extended cut, like the other Chantrellines rolling their eyes when the base player comes a-courting.
The extended cut adds one amusing moment that's already attracting attention. Tom Hanks' manager Mr. White sees a drunken Guy safely back into his hotel and then bops off to a party with a smiling pal in a convertible sports car. Mr. White is professional, discreet, honorable and apparently gay. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. From Mike Hernandez, 5.14.07:
I've had a theory regarding the bass player's non-identity for several years now. In the movie the character is never named, just listed as "T.B. Player" in the credits. Way back in April 1995, Tom Hanks was a guest on The Late Show with David Letterman doing promo for Apollo 13, I believe. On the same show was a performance by his pal Bruce Springsteen, who had just reformed The E Street Band. As Dave introduced the members of Bruce's band, he mistakenly skipped over the bass player, Garry W. Tallent. He was immediately corrected, then commented, "nobody remembers the bass player!" I always wondered if that gave Hanks the idea.
I've read that a possible inspiration for the change in the song's tempo was the early Beatles hit Please Please Me. That song originated as a slow, Roy Orbison-esque ballad, then suddenly found life when they decided to pick up the pace.
Regarding the scene of Mr. White meeting up with his friend Lloyd, the funniest part of it all for me was the fact that Lloyd was played by NFL hall of famer Howie Long, one of the toughest defensive linemen in all of football and a former Oakland/Los Angeles Raider, the meanest team in the NFL. That was brilliant casting.
Thanks for doing those reviews you do, Michael
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