With six straight hit movies in the bank and a pair of Oscars on the mantel, Tom Hanks has inflated into a major Hollywood power. So when he tells the guys in suits he wants to write and direct a film all his own, the suits start nodding vigorously into their salads and opening their checkbooks.
Unfortunately, the current product of Hanks's clout is a pretty flimsy piece of business. That Thing You Do!, a showbiz comedy tracing the swift rise and sudden disintegration of a fictional Sixties pop group called The Wonders, is one part baby-boomer nostalgia for a mythical beast, Lost Innocence, and two parts numbingly bad music. Movie audiences have been humming along with Tom for most of the Nineties, but his modest first outing as auteur doesn't have much of a beat, and it isn't very good to dance to.
That Thing's strength, if it can be said to have one, is its gentle comic take on America in 1964--although Hanks misses a couple of chord changes in that department, too. As we dolly in on Erie, Pennsylvania (aka Everytown, USA), those four moptops from Liverpool are all the rage, Vietnam hasn't yet ignited a major domestic crisis, and youthful defiance consists of forgetting to turn the lights out down at Dad's appliance store. The culprit in this sin is one Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), a properly scrubbed white boy with some vague beatnik leanings, a nice smile and his own drum set. Guy's dream is vintage Caucasian fantasy--playing jazz with the great black pianist Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs). What he actually does is energize a local band that cranks out bubblegum. Before you can say "Beatles clones," the boys are working a spaghetti joint out by the Erie airport, then Pittsburgh, then the grinding state-fair circuit. As the movie's title song (on the Play-Tone label) moves up the charts and the nation's teenage girls begin to squeal, the Wonders' new manager and promoter, Mr. White (Hanks), gets his charges a series of ever-slicker band uniforms, a national TV shot, a trip to Hollywood--the whole bit. It's only a matter of time until the roof caves in.
There's some intermittent charm in all of this. The vision of boys next door rising up to fame and fortune--if only as a one-hit phenomenon--still has that old American Dream zing, and Hanks drops in nice period details like a frantic gaggle of go-go dancers in shiny capri pants and a trio of pseudo-Supremes shimmying their booties off. But this take on the pre-Hendrix Sixties feels pat and processed, like a cartoon too carefully drawn. Among the Wonders, our guy Guy, whose friends call him "Skitch," shows a little edge, a little suggestion of the tempest about to break over the decade. But his bandmates are as bland as elevator music. Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech) is the songwriter and alleged artistic conscience of the group, but he's all white bread. Lenny, the guitar player (Steve Zahn), is another nerd who can't score with chicks, and the bass player (Ethan Embry) is such a nondescript bit of merchandise that he doesn't even merit a name--he's "the bass player." They're all more or less interchangeable parts.
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For color and/or glamour, Hanks has enlisted willowy Liv Tyler, who's almost as hot a property these days as he is. Here she's Faye Dolan--Jimmy's girlfriend and the group's groupie, who joins her friends from Erie on the trouble-mined road to instant stardom. Not surprisingly, it's Hanks himself who puts in the film's best performance, as the world-weary record-company guy who hustles the musically challenged Wonders up through the teen-trash ranks, capped off by a bit in a beach-blanket movie, with the boys dressed in sailor suits. Later, it's three minutes of fame via TV's Ed Sullivanesque "Hollywood Showcase," then what passes for disorder and early sorrow. Mr. White hasn't seen it all, but he's seen some of it, so when the temptations of minor fame and inevitable dissension scuttle the group, he can only shrug and move on.
The fatal thing is that we feel like doing the same, because there's not much American Graffiti fizz or Commitments boldness in this mannered little bow to a time and a style. Way down in the subtext, I suppose, the Wonders' swift arc--striving, success and oblivion, all in three months--means to suggest the Sixties generation's journey from New Frontier idealism to counterculture alienation. But the whole thing's so fluffy (just like the incessant title song), cute and pleased with itself that when The Wonders break up, it's hard to care. You can't help thinking that the sooner these guys wind up with basements stacked high with unsold 45s and scrapbooks full of bittersweet memories, the better off they--and the 1960s--will be.
First, though, boy must get girl and, because this is a fairy tale, boy must also get his shot jazzing in Los Angeles with his black hero--a Sixties trope nearly as exhausted by now as the Wonders' meager talents. As for Tom Hanks's high-riding acting talents, they will doubtless be better showcased next time around, and the time after that. As long as someone else mans the typewriter and stands behind the camera.
That Thing You Do! Written and directed by Tom Hanks. With Tom Everett Scott, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Tom Hanks and Liv Tyler.