Given the number of one-hit wonders on the golden-oldie radio stations, it's surprising that no one came up with the idea for a movie like That Thing You Do! long before Tom Hanks put pen to paper. Hanks' film, his first effort as a feature director and screenwriter, is a peppy concoction about four clean-cut rock-and-rollers who are talented enough, and packaged carefully enough, to enjoy a few weeks of overnight success. Their band is called, appropriately enough, the Wonders. Obviously, Hanks wants us to know right away that these guys won't compile enough material for a greatest hits album.
Hanks cast himself in the key supporting role of Mr. White, the fast-talking record executive who discovers the Wonders. Mr. White seems at once affable and calculating -- and the same could be said about That Thing You Do! The story begins shortly after the Beatles established the new rock-band paradigm -- three guitar players, backed by a drummer -- but long before popular music, and the people who performed it, began to reflect the upheavals that we associate with the later 1960s. That Thing You Do! is set "specifically in 1964," Hanks noted in a recent interview, because, that way, he could avoid the troublesome traumas that might dim the sunny nostalgia. "If you set this in 1966," Hanks admitted, "well, a band breaking up sort of pales in comparison to ... civil rights demonstrations and Vietnam."
Which means that, yes, once again, we have a movie that takes place during the year or so prior to America's "loss of innocence." And maybe that's not such a bad thing. After all, would you really want to see one of the Wonders wailing a protest song, or overdosing on drugs, or trashing a hotel room?
Tom Everett Scott, an ingratiating newcomer, is first among equals in the ensemble cast as Guy Patterson, the drummer who becomes the Wonders' unofficial leader. Scott looks and sounds so much like a young Tom Hanks that it's hard not to think of him as Hanks' on-screen alter ego. Indeed, in the scenes where Guy and Mr. White speak to each other, Hanks appears greatly amused, as though he suddenly saw himself in the younger actor's face. This would be little more than a distraction were it not for the fact that, because these two characters have such an obvious connection, their relationship takes on a deeper meaning. Maybe Mr. White really does see a lot of himself in this naive but talented young man. And, if so, maybe that's at least part of the reason why he decides the Wonders -- who are good, but not that good -- are destined for stardom. Or, failing that, for a hit record or two.
Guy and his bandmates hail from Erie, Pennsylvania, depicted as a stereotypical Middle American town. The place doesn't have much in the way of nightlife -- the Wonders play their first gig in an Italian restaurant near the local airport -- and the appliance store owned by Guy's father appears to be one of the community's more bustling businesses. Guy works in his father's store, dates a hometown beauty and generally seems content with his lot. The only things that sets him apart as artistic, sort of, is his fondness for jazz records and his hobby as a drummer. His involvement with the Wonders is pure happenstance -- when the regular drummer breaks his arm before a talent show, his bandmates ask Guy to fill in. One thing leads to another, and Guy discovers that, even if it's just a gig near the airport, any chance to perform is more exciting than selling vacuum cleaners.
Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), the band's serious-minded songwriter, has loftier plans for a musical career. At the other extreme, Lenny (Steve Zahn), the lead guitarist, sees music primarily as a way to meet girls. The fourth member of the band, a bass player played by Ethan Embry, is a Wonder because -- well, because he is.
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Liv Tyler plays another familiar character, the girlfriend who falls out of love with one Wonder and into love with another. After this movie and Stealing Beauty, it's still difficult to say whether Tyler has any range -- or, for that matter, any future -- as an actress. But she does have an indisputable ability to light up the screen. Note the scene where Faye, Tyler's character, hears "That Thing You Do!", the Wonders' signature tune, when it's played for the first time on a local radio station. The glow on her face as she races down the street, transistor radio plugged into her ear, is a delight to behold.
Not surprisingly, given his ability and background as an actor, Hanks brings out the best in the up-and-comers he has cast in lead roles. He also gets good work from Alex Rocco as, briefly, a brash record-company mogul, and Kevin Pollak as, even more briefly, a furniture-store owner and rock-concert impresario. The final 15 minutes of the movie seem rushed. (You get the feeling Hanks suddenly looked at his watch and said, "Uh-oh! We have to get out of here! Fast!") Overall, however, That Thing You Do! is as much fun as listening to a stack of 45s on your living-room stereo.
That Thing You Do!
Directed by Tom Hanks. With Tom Hanks, Liv Tyler and Tom Everett Scott. Rated PG.