That Thing You Do, Tom Hanks’ screenwriting and directorial debut, is a tremendously enjoyable project in the service of desperately offensive and shockingly small-minded values.
Set in the giddy, what-next infancy of the British Invasion, this fictional biopic races through the rise and inevitable dissolution of a band of boys from Erie, Pa., who accidentally write one great song. It’s a terrific idea for a movie, the group’s brevity tweaking the premise from mere fiction to high concept, the milieu allowing Hanks the freedom to step in and out of his historical frame at will by positing penny-ante rivals to the Beatles bursting unwittingly on the scene at the same cultural moment.
But he isn’t sure what to do about the Beatles, whose skinny shadows do not loom over our local heroes. The Brits are an atmospherical nonpresence, a topical reference shoe-horned in here and there—a reporter makes snide comparisons, someone mentions their Ed Sullivan Show appearance—to denote the musical world outside, one which Hanks takes no trouble to create or explain.
This is partly because the structure of That Thing mirrors, with some distortion, the Beatles’ own story; you keep expecting this to be an alternative history of 1964’s pop universe—what if that same music had come into being, only heralded by a group of kids from the States who, after causing the requisite teenage sensation, imploded? But nothing quite so interesting is being attempted; it’s as if Hanks recognized the possibilities of his script and deliberately, sometimes with difficulty, veered away from exploiting them.
The story opens in Erie, in “February 1964”—the balmy look of the streets and its citizens’ casual clothes are the first confusing, or perhaps overlooked, details in the movie’s two hours. With an understandable if irksome vanity, Hanks allowed Tom Everett Scott, very much the young Tom Hanks, to be cast in the Tom Hanks role as Guy Patterson, son of an appliance salesman, who plays drums in his basement and loves jazz. (It’s a measure of Hanks’ deep-set nerdhood that he makes his hero the drummer.)
Guy isn’t aching to get out of Erie; he doesn’t give speeches about wanting to see Paris or failing spectacularly or taking chances or in any way desiring more from life. He won’t even play with his buddies’ band. Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), Lenny (Steve Zahn), and Chad (Giovanni Ribisi) think Guy’s a beatnik because of his black turtleneck and penchant for nonpop, but all four function contentedly within the parameters of Erie’s limits and options. Unable to resist the pull of scripture, the story has foolish Chad break his arm on the day of a local talent show that offers $100 to the winner.
They recruit Guy who, bored with the group’s hypnotically middle-of-the-road pop, introduces a whomping beat and hyped-up tempo to Jimmy’s sweet, whiny “That Thing You Do.” The thing, so to speak, has hit written all over it. In a neat apostrophe of the value of the people’s voice, a goofy-looking guy (he’s the poor fellow in the “Ehwun Bhur” Got Milk? ads) who had been howling for his friends in a mayonnaisy “Latin” high-school ensemble switches allegiance and goes berserk for the tune. “Is that our fan?” asks Lenny at their second gig, in a cavernous spaghetti garden near the airport.
Little anachronistic false notes begin to add up—the Donna Karan turtlenecks, for example, the terms “galpal” and “The Coast” for Los Angeles, various happily integrated environments from a high school to a TV studio, Guy’s dad’s remote control, a prototype of which was probably available to appliance salesmen the year before it came on the market, but still, it’s jarring. And the film’s title itself—“thing,” as in “that thing” only took on significance as term of ironic proxy or postmodern vagueness within the last 10 years. A hit song of that time was more likely to sport a title like “What You Do,” which strikes the modern ear as odd.
Nevertheless, the momentum of That Thing—and “That Thing”—is undeniable, and as the group, called “The Oneders” for a while in a hilariously unsuccessful attempt at a Beatles-style pun but soon just the prophetic “Wonders,” attracts hordes to the Italian joint and the attention of a small-time manager, the exuberance of its creation has an irresistible pull. They press a 7-inch of the song, and Jimmy’s faithful Faye (Liv Tyler, beautiful in a big-boned, swollen-lipped way that probably would not have been appreciated in 1964) sells them for a buck during the shows. It’s a perfect song (written by Adam Schlesinger), with a maddeningly great beat, forgettable lyrics, and a tune of such textbook pop ephemerality that five minutes after enjoying the heck out of it you find yourself enjoying it again as if you’d never heard it before.
The Wonders have it pretty good—their two-bit manager sells them off to “Mr. White,” a dark angel of showbiz played by Hanks with inappropriate intensity. Mr. White gives the kids everything possible within the confines of a standard Play-Tone recording contract, throws in perks like Faye’s paid presence on the road, books them into stadia of increasing size, and introduces them to the boorish Play-Tone president (Alex Rocco, inevitably) for whom they’re making such big bucks.
Puffy-faced Hanks slits his eyes and sneers his lines for all the world like the villain of the piece, as if by turning on his lovable image he’ll buy his project cachet. Weirdly, though, he’s chosen a character without obvious menace; the worst that can be said of Mr. White—or anyone in this harmless, obstacle-free world—is that his manner is brusque.
The Wonders go from state-farm tours to arenas (complete with hippy-shaking go-go girls) to a movie bit and even an appearance on a faux Ed Sullivan Show emceed by Hanks’ old Bosom Buddy, Peter Scolari. Their whirlwind months climbing the charts are masterfully handled—Hanks finds a way of showing a lot of this stuff in a comic montage that only once refers directly to A Hard Day’s Night and somehow avoids playing the damn song over and over, even while demonstrating clearly that the boys must. They put on matching suits, Guy dons his trademark sunglasses (in which he does look devastating—screaming girls call out, “Shades!”), and they trundle onstage to run through the repertoire of keep-’em-clapping trade tips White has impressed upon them.
While the band ascends, the lives of its members grow minimally more complicated, to no effect. The nameless bass player (Ethan Embry), heading for the Marines a few months into the tour, falls for a black singer in a Supremes-style group. There are no repercussions; no one notices. Lenny, a young Jeff Daniels look-alike, turns out to be a bit of a yob, but he has a mocking, sideways sense of humor that hints that playing in a band won’t be the last indulgence of his life.
Dark, intense ’60s dreamboat Jimmy seems to be the only member of this outfit with an investment in the music for its own sake. He writes a song as good as “That Thing” (“Dance With Me Tonight,” by Scott Rogness and Rick Elias), fails to notice when Faye gets ill (what is a nice girl doing on the road with rockers, anyway?) and in his increasing absorption with the band’s image, future, and accounts, is cast as some kind of vain jerk whose selfishness brings the Wonders tumbling down. We’re supposed to laugh at his objection to wearing sailor suits and lip-syncing the group’s hit for a Frankie-and-Annette-style beach picture, and we do, because the other guys make the jokes. But Jimmy’s right about almost everything, from wondering what history will make of their campy movie moment to refusing to record a backlog of material from the Play-Tone vaults.
Meanwhile Guy searches for his own version of musical realness in the jazz clubs of Los Angeles, where they’re stationed to cut a record. He’s pointed there by—I can’t believe I even have to report this—a kindly old black porter at the Ambassador Hotel who wants nothing more than that these five crazy white kids have the time of their lives. He shuffles, he chuckles, he appears out of nowhere when someone needs a hand, he quizzes Guy on jazz lore before tucking him into a taxi and sending him to the coolest club in town.
The grotesquerie piles up at the club, where after throwing back martinis and bopping to a set, Guy discovers he’s 10 feet from his idol, an elderly pianist named Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs). He is invited to sit at a table of friendly but dubious old jazz musicians, and Del proceeds to offer his earthy, black-folks’ wisdom on the subject of musical careers.
Up until now, That Thing You Do has been a slight and geeky movie, with a bureaucrat’s unfertile mind, but not an insulting one. The women are without personality (the bassist’s black girlfriend is silent and nameless); their psychologies are indicated in how men react to them, so that if Guy takes care of the neglected Faye, and that nice Mr. White says “she’s special,” then she must be. S-E-X doesn’t rear its ugly head at any point during the boys’ tour, even as they run a gantlet of cops holding back shrieking, crying females. No one even offers one of the kids a cigarette, for crying out loud.
It follows that, while he sees them as different genres, Hanks isn’t quite able to distinguish between pop and jazz as cultures. When asked if his group is any good, Guy nods seriously and tries to convince not only Del but himself with the pronouncement, “Yeah. We got something snappy!”
How the snappy have fallen and all that—eventually the band dissolves organically, each member too young or silly or stubborn to make it work. Only Guy, our hero, sticks with it until the end—he’s alone in the studio on the day of the recording when all the other guys have found better things to do. But this stalwart quality makes him seem like a dullard and a kiss-ass; according to the movie’s plodding, bourgeois value system, Guy’s the good guy because he does what he’s told. He won’t take chances with the military or wild women or by trusting his music.
The petty-mindedness carries through to the very end. Using a device movies should be banned from using, still photos and a couple of sentences tell us what happened to the leads, and what a sad future is in store. They fade into dull, humdrum, even faintly grubby lives, in which we are not asked to imagine them satisfied.
This is Hanks’ middle-class dream—a small, schematic world of icy blondes and “special” brunettes, helpful black folk whose fondest dream is to let the white man achieve his, where the smart guys fail by teaching and the dumb guys go into business. That Thing You Do does not so much celebrate the one-hit Wonders’ extraordinary ride—their exuberance, their sweetness, their talent, their luck—as find them unfit for it.CP