That Thing You Do

Weekly Alibi

DIRECTED BY: Tom Hanks

REVIEWED: 10-09-96

"That Thing You Do" is a real song by a made-up band, The Wonders, who are the subject of That Thing You Do, the directoral debut for Academy Award winner Tom Hanks. It doesn't stop there, though. Hanks wrote the movie, portrays Mr. White, the band's big-time manager, and even wrote and co-wrote several songs on the soundtrack. Hanks put a lot into his highly anticipated first go of it, and--while the result isn't exactly a masterpiece--That Thing You Do succeeds as an enormously entertaining movie about what happens when your wildest dreams become reality. The film's success, in large part, is due to the little things that can sometimes rescue a well-beaten dead horse and turn it into something with a life of its own.

The story follows The Wonders, a forgettable weekend-dance band living in Erie, Pa., in the early 1960s, through a brief series of mishaps that lead to Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) sitting in on drums for a talent show appearance. Patterson learns the new ballad the band has written only to play it at twice its written tempo during the performance. His error in tempo results in several things: Lead singer Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech) gets pissed, the bass player (Ethan Embry) gets confused, lead guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) gets it, the crowd goes wild and The Wonders win the talent show. From there, the storyline moves quite fast, taking us through a string of packed club dates, a first recording session produced by Patterson's Uncle Bob (Chris Isaak), a first manager, Horace (Chris Ellis), a record deal, a state fair tour and, finally, a taste of superstardom courtesy of Playtone Records exec, Mr. White (Hanks).

Liv Tyler as Faye Dolan, Jimmy's girlfriend and "fifth" member of The Wonders, is excellent, and it's damned refreshing to see her face sans makeup in several scenes. The real "star," though, if there is one, is Steve Zahn. As Lenny, Zahn is the catalyst for most of the film's humorous and memorable moments. The rest of the cast--with the exception of Holmes Osborne Jr. and Claudia Stedlan as Mr. and Mrs. Patterson--provide cameo-like appearances that are integral to the film's success. In that sense, That Thing You Do seems more true-to-life than one might expect from a movie that is based on the exact opposite.

Hanks' biggest obstacle was to keep his film as far removed from the Backbeat and Eddie and the Cruisers camps as possible, a feat that can be credited to a cast full of unlikely bedfellows. As an actor, Hanks has the uncanny ability to become the character--he wasn't simply that actor who played Forrest Gump, he was Forrest Gump - until he became Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell. As a director, Hanks has instilled the notion of absorbing rather than portraying characters in the cast of That Thing You Do. Jonathon Schaech--as The Wonders' lead singer/beatnik songwriter, Jimmy--is the perfect example. You recognize him, but he presents his character so convincingly that you don't realize he was Wynona Ryder's summer love interest in How To Make An American Quilt until long after you've left the theater ... if ever.

In fact, the cast rarely seems to be working as an ensemble and, because of that, we are encouraged to get to know each one of them as individuals rather than being left to figure out how each one fits into the band. The band, as we discover by the end of the film, doesn't really matter. What does matter is that Hanks was able to realize his own filmmaking dream and please Hollywood and the movie-going public at the same time. Sometimes, the little things really pay off.

--Michael Henningsen

Capsule Reviews
That Thing You Do
That Thing You Do

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