Friday, September 9, 2011

Overlooked Gems #5: That Thing You Do!

Grade: 85 (A-)

Tom Hanks is America’s most likable movie-star, so it’s not too surprising that his directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, is one of the most likable films of the 90s. What is surprising is that the film found only modest reception in its 1996 release. Few films of its time are as filled with pure joy and feature a love story as disarming. That is not the love story between stars Tom Everett Scott and Liv Tyler (although their charm is undeniable), but one between Hanks and the early 60s rock and roll he loves.

Local Erie teen band the One-ders (frequently mispronounced as the “o-nee-ders” until manager Hanks renames them “The Wonders”) are in a jam after their drummer (Giovanni Ribisi) breaks his arm. They enlist their friend, Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), a teenager with an affinity for jazz music and a great talent as a drummer. They’re a talented group, but their song “That Thing You Do!” doesn’t take off until Guy ignores egotistical singer/songwriter Jimmy’s order to play the song as a ballad and gives it the kick it needs. They become a local sensation, tour Ohio, get a record contract and a hit with “That Thing You Do!”, and break up all within two months.

The film is a tale of a one-hit wonder teen group that never makes it past their first single, and yet their story feels vaguely familiar. Hanks wisely models the story of the Wonders after the story of the Beatles to make the film seem more universal. There’s the replacement of the original drummer with more talented man with a funny nickname (Richard “Ringo Starr” Starkey and Guy “Shades” Patterson), the re-structuring of an initially unimpressive song (“Please Please Me” for the Beatles, the title track for the Wonders), the band’s goofy sense-of-humor (provided by Scott and the always wonderful Steve Zahn), the frontman’s loyal yet frequently slighted girlfriend (Liv Tyler, perfectly cast for the first and only time of her career), the band wearing all-matching suits and bowing together after each performance, and the group’s demise at the egotism of the frontman (Paul and John combine into Jimmy). The stories obviously aren’t exactly the same; the Beatles, if I recall, had a few hits, but the similarities help make the Wonders seem like a worthwhile group to follow. It doesn’t hurt that “That Thing You Do!” is as catchy and giddy as “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or “She Loves You” (nominated for an Oscar, the song predictably lost to Madonna and Andrew Lloyd Webber for a song from the film version of Evita).

That Thing You Do!’s star, Tom Everett Scott, looks like a young Tom Hanks crossed with Kirk Douglas (whose film Spartacus is frequently quoted by the goofy Scott), and it’s easy to see a young Hanks in the role. Scott has Hanks’ likability, and his slowly-developing romance with Tyler is as sweet-natured and simple as the love song that drives the film. He notices Tyler’s fever when her jerk boyfriend is focused on success, is far more impressed and excited to be on stage than Jimmy, and ultimately just wants everyone to get along. That Thing You Do! is also refreshing in it’s refusal to go along with usual music-movie clichés: Mr. White (Hanks) is a likable man throughout and never cheats the group (who wants to see Hanks play a jerk anyway?) There’s never a “band member tears apart a room” scene. No one gets addicted to drugs. No one says “you’ve changed, man”. So if the film doesn’t try to be more than a love-letter to a simpler time for rock-and-roll, it’s only because it’s as simple, catchy, and likable as the songs that inspire it.

NOTE: The DVD of That Thing You Do! features both the theatrical and extended cut of the film. While the extended cut has its moments (especially more scenes with Tyler and Scott), it spends far too much time on a go-nowhere subplot involving Scott’s girlfriend (a young Charlize Theron) and is way too long at two and half hours. Stick with the lean theatrical cut.

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