That Thing You Do!
ONE SURE ROUTE to success these days is to make something that's nostalgic and original at the same time. You can see this at work in Disneyland, in the designs of Ralph Lauren, and in that prairie-minded radio show from St. Paul. Tom Hanks is also part of this successful cabal, and this is no criticism; capable of seeing the charm as well as the latent ironies in his subject, Hanks's first movie, That Thing You Do!, is a comedy that mostly lives up to the boast of its punctuation. Any fool can chart the bittersweet course of a story in which four guys get famous temporarily, but new screenwriter-director Hanks is also still an actor with a sense of wit and loyalty to his profession, so he finds private little things to celebrate inside of his format.
Hanks's film is nostalgic on the surface. Anyone who ever walked consciously through 1964, or has even just visited it at a flea market, will recognize immediately that the off-primary color schemes, Italianate/Ivy League clothes, streamlined appliances, and even the lettering on posters in this movie are perfect. In fact, half the charm of That Thing is its objects, lovingly displayed as a set decorator's accomplishment. The remaining nostalgia comes from the obvious innocence (and/or naiveté) of the characters: just out of high school, the four guys who make up The Wonders are cast so precisely that they retain their teenaged charm while operating from budding adulthood. They're starting to make choices that will change their lives, long after their fame as one-hit wonders has worked its own changes.
When The Wonders's dim drummer can't join them at a talent contest, it's a lucky break that Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) can fill in. Guy has already been in the service; he drives a Karmann-Ghia, wears turtlenecks, and idolizes jazz guys while also meekly working in his dad's appliance store. He has no plans to be a rocker, but his innate musical sense makes him convince Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), the lead singer and aspirant songwriter, to gear up the tempo on the title tune. This kicks in the plot metronome, and the rest is history. Would-be playboy lead guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) and the geeky no-name Bass Player (Ethan Embry) ride along as the contest-winning tune leads to a locally pressed 45 and then a contract with Play-Tone Records, Inc.
Beyond cooking up all the nostalgia, Hanks is a beneficent auteur. Everyone with a line in this movie gets some little thing to do, some microscopically sweet gesture, look, or phrase that blesses him or her with the spotlight. I'm thinking, for example, of how the Bass Player exits an Army-Navy store, smugly proud of his new "Ike"-style jacket; as he tugs on the waist, it could mean he's learning to dress like a rebel, or... well, there's a payoff later about the military. Then there's the mild-mannered helpfulness of Chris Isaak as Uncle Bob, who moonlights on his day job (recording sermons and church choirs) to press the boys' single. "You guys are way better than anything," he notes politely.
Hanks has always been a great character actor who found himself blessed with lead parts. Maybe that's why he gives the likes of Kevin Pollak the chance to show, in a blip, what he can do as a smarmy rock DJ hosting a matinee concert. Or why he mutes his own part as Mr. White, the A&R guy from Play-Tone. Without being too obvious about it, Mr. White is both angel and Grim Reaper for the band: He guides them through what passes for fame (afternoon concerts, state fairs, a beach movie cameo, and finally, national TV), but he knows they are disposable, replaceable. The parodies of the early-'60s rock/pop singers who tour with The Wonders should provide the protagonists with a built-in lesson in musical obsolescence, but they're mostly ignoring it.
Ultimately, Tom Hanks's old/new hybrid takes the tame route. Clearly more enamored of his band than of Mr. White (what a guy!), he more or less dutifully follows the story to its inevitable conclusion. This is a genteel wimp-out; the only hint of passion or risk comes very late, in a perfectly worded surprise outburst from Faye (Liv Tyler), the band's professional hanger-on and Jimmy's longtime girlfriend. She stands up for something--love and devotion, primarily--but only Mr. White and Guy recognize it. I wish I'd heard more from Faye all along, but it's clear she can't compete with the easy momentum of nostalgia that's sold and served this movie so well. CP
Tom Hanks appears at Walker Art Center in a Regis Dialogue with Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel Friday at 8 p.m.; call 375-7622.
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