Hey, Hey, We're the Wonders!

That Thing You Do!: Tom Hanks takes the last train to hitsville

That Thing You Do! is perfectly beguiling, perfectly skilled, perfectly smart and perfectly harmless. Coming from anyone else, it might seem slick and calculated, but as the debut of Tom Hanks as a writer-director, it seems like an unusually personal piece of moviemaking.

The story, which Hanks claims to have written while touring to promote Forrest Gump, begins in Erie, Pennsylvania (the fair city in and around which yours truly grew up, and where my parents and other loved ones still endure the winters of the Great Lakes for the sake of the sort of idyllic summers depicted in the film). In 1964, an Erie garage band exchanges its mediocre drummer for a good one, cuts a single which catches on locally, plays a gig in Pittsburgh, and from there is signed by a major label to tour the country. As with the recent Grace of My Heart, all of this movie's tunes are ersatz exercises in the style of the period, and they sound like you've been hearing them all your life.

The single, with which the film shares its title, shoots up the charts, and within a few weeks the band goes from playing state fairs to playing for screaming mobs of females on an Ed Sullivanesque TV show. But egos and artistic differences come into play, as does a girl or two, and the bass player has to leave for the Marines in a couple of months anyway. The combo's name, the Wonders--which the group originally tries spelling the Oneders--foreshadows its fate in the recording industry.

What makes this cheery, likable film seem so, er, Hanksian is not only that Hanks himself plays the key supporting role of the record exec who signs the boys, or that he has peopled it with pals and cronies ranging from his Bosom Buddies co-star Peter Scolari to his wife, Rita Wilson, or that he has named two of the major characters after Apollo 13 astronauts.

There's a more glaring manifestation of the Hanks touch: The central character Guy, the new drummer played by Tom Everett Scott, is such a ringer for a young Hanks that he might have been cloned. Scott is all but identical physically, but he's also a startling match for Hanks in acting style. At the beginning of the film, Guy's father calls him at the family's appliance store to ask why he's still there so late, and Guy quips, "Cookin' the books as usual, Dad" in exactly that same genial, offhanded tone for which the director has become so well-liked.

It may be no more by accident that Steve Zahn, who plays Lenny, the band's jokester guitarist, is almost equally a ringer for Scolari. The quartet is rounded out by Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), the gorgeous, broodingly "sensitive" songwriter/lead singer, and by a low-key bass player (Ethan Embry) whose name is never mentioned in the course of the film, and who is listed in the credits merely as "The Bass Player."

Though Hanks has shrewdly surrounded himself with a powerhouse trio of producers--Gary Goetzman, Jonathan Demme and Edward Saxon--and first-rate production talent like designer Victor Kempster and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, the film is still a prodigal display of talent by the director. Hanks even wrote several of the songs, including the hilariously dorky opening title number, a Mitch Millerish ditty called "Lovin' You Lots and Lots." That we don't get sick of the title song (written by Adam Schlesinger) is in itself a display of directorial skill. It, or part of it, plays at least eight times in the course of the film, but the performances are subtly shaded and varied so that it stays fresh.

Hanks shows a gift for warm, bantering dialogue and sarcasm somehow magically lacking in meanness--Zahn, as Lenny the Clown, gets to speak the best of it--and he gives Charlize Theron, as Guy's beautiful girlfriend Tina, some choice lines of affected '50s-style insipidity. But impressive as the best of it is, the script has its amateurish side, too. He gives Jimmy's neglected girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler) a Big Speech that's painfully purple, and he indulges in cliches like the worldly wise hotel doorman (Obba Babatunde) who offers sage advice to the lovelorn, and addresses the boys as "young squires."

Minor quibbles. More psychologically telling, though equally inoffensive, is Hanks' dogged avoidance of any unpleasantness. Guy breaks up with Tina with no confrontation scene; the original drummer (Giovanni Ribisi) shows no sign that he's jealous or resentful of the Wonders' success, and the recording industry appears to be made up of scrupulously honest and professional people. No one loses his balance irrevocably; no one's life gets ruined. The overwhelming sense that we get from That Thing You Do!--and perhaps it's not a bad sense for a movie to give us, as long as it's only once in a while--is that we are safe.

That's not usually what we get from films about the pop-music world. That Thing You Do! is like a training film for a sane reaction to pop-culture fame. We know from the start that this group is a flash in the pan. These kids are too young and callow not to get stung a little by the brevity of their fame, but they're also too sensible and witty and good-natured not to have fun and enjoy it while it lasts. Like the writer-director who created them, they have good heads on their shoulders.

--M. V. Moorhead

That Thing You Do!
Directed by Tom Hanks; with Tom Everett Scott, Johnathon Schaech, Liv Tyler, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry, Tom Hanks and Charlize Theron.

Rated

 
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