Feb. 15, 2005

That Thing You Do! (1996)
Grade: 49/100

Director: Tom Hanks.
Stars: Tom Everett Scott, Steve Zahn, Liv Tyler

What it's about. In 1964, local young men form a rock band (The Wonders), which achieves raped success. But its status is threatened as the members develop other interests.

How others will see it. Many people will forgive the lackluster final minutes, and remember the heart of the film, which provides entertaining nostalgia and good character development.

How I felt about it. Tom Hanks is credited as both director and sole writer. It has to be admitted, he has some talent in these areas. He also plays a key supporting role as the band's smooth but controlling manager.

Other than the entirely predictable ending, the problem is that the story focuses on the wrong character. Hanks' alter ego, Guy (Scott), is the cool guy who says and does all the right things. He wanders into The Wonders, and like magic, their gigs get better and better, and their hit record rises the charts.

But the real leader of The Wonders is moody songwriter Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech), whose character is turned into a jerk because the story is told from the perspective of the other and more conventional characters. Amiable Lenny (Steve Zahn), hip drummer Guy, and supportive siren Faye (Tyler) are the good guys, but since their characters are straightforward, they are less interesting.

But they get the screen time anyway. Guy gets to jam with his hero, Del Paxton. Be still, my beating heart. Then, he gets to kiss the heartbroken supermodel. Whoda seen that coming? Anyone who's seen a movie before, that's for sure.

The quality of the film crests and falls with the fortunes of The Wonders, and their fame peaks with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, only it isn't called that since all the names (except that of Ringo) have been changed, perhaps on the advice of humorless lawyers. Their big hit single is actually kind of whiny, especially after its fifth playing, but the band is still okay. I think Scott can actually play the drums.

It's fun watching the mid-sixties nostalgia. Was this what the decade was really like? Or, has it been sanitized, robbed of references to the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, stubborn Southern segregation, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviets (Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe both came out in 1964), and anything else other than retro fashion?

The real world does impose: the Play-Tone stars are sarcastic has-beens, and the record label's interest in The Wonders is strictly mercenary. Guy's hard-sell salesman father disapproves of his son's musical interest, until the son's newfound celebrity makes his father among his biggest fans.

Still, the band's sudden disintegration seems too pat. Jimmy, the serious artist, refuses to turn The Wonders into a cover band for the Play-Tone song catalog. Is there no room to compromise here? Or even an attempt to do so?