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Hank's One-Hit Wonders

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 04, 1996

Let’s face it: A pop band’s rise to success is hardly the most original idea to grace a movie. But in "That Thing You Do!" the four neophytes who top the charts with their first single are so appealing, the familiarities are transformed. First-time writer/director Tom Hanks stays about a half-beat ahead of the cliches with rim shots of boyish enthusiasm and deft comedy. The movie’s also buoyed by the title song, whose Beatles sound is infectious enough to merit a real hit.

Set during the mid-1960s, the story centers on Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), a quiet jazz drum student who works at his father’s electronic appliance store in Erie, Pa. When a local rock band, led by songwriter Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), needs to replace its drummer for a talent show, he agrees to fill in.

Putting an up-tempo beat on their signature song, "That Thing You Do!," he makes them sound like a million bucks. The crowd loves it, the group wins the show, and they realize they’re on to a good thing. So does Play-Tone records executive Mr. White (Tom Hanks), who charts their meteoric future: a tour of state fairs, a recording contract and a hit single.

"That Thing You Do!," which Hanks conceived after watching a Beatles documentary, takes great care to reproduce the atmosphere and decor of the period. The movie is playful, winning and surprisingly delicate. The performers are a sweet-natured bunch, particularly Scott (clearly a Hanks alter ego), who stumbles into this popularity thing, surprised but unfazed.

When he dons sunglasses for the act, he acquires the nickname of Shades and becomes the band’s main heartthrob. He also has an unexplained, but hysterical attachment to the movie "Spartacus." He loves to make such odd statements (while drumming) as, "I have led you here, for I am Spartacus."

One of the great joke motifs is the band name. Trying to replicate the word-play of the Beatles, the musicians decide to call themselves the Wonders, spelling it "Oneders." Only trouble is, everyone calls them the Oh-nee-ders. When Mr. White takes over, he insists on the normal spelling. This prompts guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn, the funniest guy in the movie) to respond: "As in ‘I wonder what happened to the Oh-nee-ders?’‚"

„ Liv Tyler delivers a sweet performance as Faye, Jimmy’s girlfriend who supports the band faithfully but switches her romantic attentions to Guy, though she’s pretty much a fifth wheel in terms of the story. Holmes Osborne Jr. and Claudia Stedelin are very funny as Guy’s eccentric parents. And there are lighthearted cameos from Rita Wilson (Hanks’s real-life wife) as a sympathetic cocktail waitress; Chris Isaak as Guy’s Uncle Bob who helps the band record its first version of their single; Jonathan Demme (also the movie’s producer) as a bizarre, beach-movie director; and Kevin Pollak as a cheesy music impresario called "Boss" Vic Koss.

The movie doesn’t have the fuller, more satisfying zest of, say, "The Commitments," but it leaves you with a pleasant feeling. And if you go home, smiling and humming that new tune (written by 28-year-old New Yorker Adam Schlesinger), what’s not to like about that?

THAT THING YOU DO! (PG) — Contains nothing particularly offensive.

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