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'That Thing You Do!': Simply Wonder-Full

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 04, 1996

The thing Tom Hanks does best is act, but "That Thing You Do!" suggests Hanks has some solid options: He wrote and directed this film about the sudden rise and free fall of a young rock band, cast himself in a key (but not dominating) role, and wrote or co-wrote nine of the songs in the film.

What's surprising, perhaps, is Hanks's quiet confidence in his ability to do so many things. "That Thing You Do!" is a charming pop tale about one-hit wonders who briefly occupy a bright space between stardom and failure. It doesn't overreach, doesn't cannibalize some obvious predecessors and doesn't try to drown its story about innocent music of the early '60s in the troubled waters of music in the '90s.

The Wonders -- ne the Oneders -- hail from Erie, Pa. Like so many youngsters in 1964, they've translated a pop thrall rooted in the British Invasion into their own songs, their own dreams. When the band's regular drummer breaks his arm just before a local talent show, the other Wonders turn to pal Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), a jazz-leaning free spirit working in his father's appliance store. Guy, who has nothing to lose, pumps up the rhythm and transforms "That Thing You Do!" from a dirgy ballad into a spirited Beatlesque masterpiece.

That sets off a series of events that launches the Wonders. Winning the talent show leads to a gig at an Italian restaurant near the airport where the band sells a copy of "That Thing You Do!" to a roving talent scout (Chris Ellis). One of the film's sweetest scenes comes when the single gets its first play on the hometown radio station, setting off a celebration that concludes with Guy tuning in all the radios and hi-fi sets at his father's store.

From Erie, the Wonders move to Pittsburgh, where even a disastrous appearance on a radio-sponsored show doesn't dim the interest of Mr. White (Hanks), the feisty head of Play-Tone Records. Deciding the song is "snappy," Mr. White signs the Wonders, loads them down with new equipment and uniforms, and adds them to a tour of the state fair circuit.

As "That Thing You Do!" climbs the Billboard chart, the band begins to realize the perks and the limitations of their success, particularly the latter. Play-Tone seems interested only in the one song, and it's the only one the Wonders are expected to play (thank goodness "That Thing You Do!," written by Adam Schlesinger, is catchy enough to survive so many repetitions during the film).

Meanwhile, conflicts escalate within the band, capped by a tense appearance on the Sullivan-like "Hollywood Television Showcase." By then, the Wonders understand they're just small wheels in the starmaking machine, but the realization comes too late to prevent the band's implosion.

Hanks is clearly interested in capturing a particular moment, not dissecting it. In that task, he is helped by an immensely likable cast, particularly Scott. As Guy, he exudes a certain detachment because (shades of Charlie Watts) it's really jazz that he loves. Even more winning is Steve Zahn, who steals the film as the wisecracking lead guitarist Lenny Haize, the one guy enjoying it from start to finish.

As the manipulative Mr. White, Hanks battles his own good-guy bent. At worst, he comes off brusque and impatient. The director allows the actor some easy mannerisms, but the role is not particularly intriguing.

The only female with a substantive role here is the ubiquitous Liv Tyler, she of the drowning-pool eyes, playing Jimmy's frequently ignored girlfriend, Faye. A late-blooming kiss -- we can't say with whom -- is about as hot as things get in this circumspectly PG film. This may be rock-and-roll, but there's no sex or drugs to dilute its spirit.

Though Hanks doesn't serve up much context, he's solid with details, and the Wonders' performances ring truer than most. (The actors, none of whom actually plays, reportedly rehearsed a full month before shooting to look authentic). The outfits, the settings and the music all reflect the times, and Hanks is to be commended for not surrounding the faux-hit at the heart of the film with genuine baby boomer classics.

That Thing You Do! is rated PG.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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