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From the Vault: That Thing You Do!

September 20, 2006

My Own Worst Critic is leaving on vacation Saturday and will have little time to post between now and Oct. 2. So I’m sharing some reviews I wrote in college for The Hoya, Georgetown University’s newspaper. Rereading these old reviews, I noticed several things:

  1. I wasn’t as bad a writer as I remembered. A little caustic perhaps, but respectable.
  2. I seemed to remember that I was the lead movie critic at my college paper, but judging by the movies I was given to review–Hackers, High School High, That Thing You Do!–I may have been overestimating my position.
  3. I really liked using fart and vomit imagery back then. This is something I should re-explore.

He’s back. Just when the world thought we could escape his ubiquitous dopey smile and his late 50s paper boy hair cut, Tom Hanks returns to the big screen. He very well may be taking over the world. As proof, he is not only starring in big budget, quality family films, but he’s also directing. His first stab at conquering humanity is a new movie about a fictional 60s rock n’ roll band and their hit song, called That Thing You Do!

The story of “That Thing You Do!” is a familiar one. There’s a young group of musicians, The Wonders, who record a great song, become big stars, meet beautiful women, make lots of money, and fall badly. Like most other rock band stories, such as “The Doors”, “The Wall”, and “This is Spinal Tap”, the lessons to be learned have nothing do with music. It’s really a morality tale about the dangers of success.

The movie plays out as an anecdotal comedy in “A League of Their Own” vein. It’s not from the Zucker Brothers, Mel Brooks school where anything goes, but it is by no means an intelligent, Woody Allen-esque exploration of deep human feelings. It is strictly light fare, drawing a good share of its laughs from Lenny (Steve Zahn), the goofy and charmless guitar player. In a photo shoot at a state fair, he is asked why the Wonders are here today. He responds, “I got a pig in the bacon competition over at the livestock pavillion. I’m gonna win that blue ribbon!”

There is also a continuing joke about the bass player, named, well, the bass player. Even in the credits, he is identified as T. B. Player. He’s one of the most shapeless characters ever with a major speaking part in a movie, but at least the script recognizes that fact. The other Wonders are characters lost somewhere in the limbo between lackluster characterization and semi-realistic portrayal of youthful exuberance. There’s Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), the serious one. He’s the lead singer who always wants to get into the studio to write some more material. There’s the aforementioned goofball, Lenny. And then there is the one character who most approaches hero status (and for the actor, perhaps star status).

He’s Guy (Tom Everett Scott), the drummer, the town’s only beatnik and devotee to Del Paxton, fictional jazz great. He reluctantly joins the Wonders when the original drummer breaks his arm trying to jump over a parking meter. He’s an innocent, like Lenny and the useless bass player, but Tom Everett Scott imparts a subtle wisdom and lucidity to the character that makes the audience depend upon him. Whereas Lenny sees the Wonders’ meteoric rise as a way to meet chicks and Jimmy sees their success as an opportunity to build a career as an artist, Guy revels in their summer of fame, but knows that he’s living a fantasy that must come to an end.

That the tale is a fantasy for not only the Wonders but also the audience, explains, but by no means excuses, some of the irreality of the story. The Wonders, in their early days, find a manager, working out of a winnebago, who miraculously puts their record on the radio as promised. But beyond that, once the Wonders become so successful that they can start touring, the manager gives them up, no questions asked, to the stewardship of Mr. White (Tom Hanks), a big shot from Play-Tone Records. The band’s original manager not only a damn nice guy, he doesn’t even seem to care that other people are making money off the act he discovered.

Another disturbing aspect is the way that the fantastic, seemingly irreversible ascent of the Wonders from garage band to national TV in the course of a month is shattered in a matter of minutes (like we all didn’t expect this to happen). Mr. White tells Guy “The Wonders are in breach of contract. It’s a common tale.” and then dumps the group off of Play-Tone’s roster. Other rock n’ roll movies punish their characters in the final act for the corruption and loss of love for the music. But the fun the Wonders have is so innocent and justifiable that the lesson here seems simply that you don’t cross Tom Hanks.

Yet, in a way, the movie plays with Hanks’ status as demi-god, as anointed by the media and the powers in Hollywood. As Mr. White, Tom Hanks projects such offhand but genial authority that people can’t help but respect him. He doesn’t fawn over the Wonders, yet he makes each player feel special, still being adressed as “Mr. White.” Mr. White always has a smile and never lets the situation get out of his control, letting each and every one of his acts know that they look and sound absolutely great, but if they screw up, they’re going back to whatever backwater they came from. One half imagines Hanks playing the same game with his unknown actors that play the Wonders.

It is a little presumptuous of Tom Hanks to write, direct, and act in another lesson movie, on the heels of “Apollo 13” and its triumph of resourcefulness, “Forrest Gump” and its embracing of simple-mindedness, and “Philadelphia” with its desparate plea for tolerance. But as the modern-day Jimmy Stewart, that’s almost his job. What made Jimmy Stewart bankable (and in the long term, endurable) was that despite filling the mantle as the American good guy with a conscience, he also was in some very good, entertaining movies (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, etc.) As pure entertainment, “That Thing You Do!” works.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Phil permalink
    September 20, 2006 3:30 pm

    I actually like this movie. It’s amazing to see all the bit players in this movie who are now names (Ethan Embry, Giovanni Ribisi). Steve Zahn definitely carries the film.

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