'90s Movie Month: "That Thing You Do!" Review

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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'90s Movie Month: "That Thing You Do!" Review

-- Rating: PG (some language)
Length: 108 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 4, 1996
Directed by: Tom Hanks
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Music

Guy (Tom Everett Scott) is one of those small-town sweeties whose girlfriend, Tina (Charlize Theron), really doesn't appreciate what a great man she has. Still, Guy is a dutiful boyfriend who spends his days working in his father's appliance store and his nights talking to Tina and playing drums. He is a passionate jazz music fan who seems a little out of place in tiny Erie, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, struggling band The One-ders (whose fans mistakenly call them The Oh-need-ers) are going through a transition of their own. They have a steady gig, but their new song "That Thing You Do" isn't really catching on the way lead singer and songwriter Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech) and bass player Lenny (Steve Zahn) had hoped.

One day, their drummer Chad (Giovanni Ribisi) takes a tumble and breaks his wrist, so Guy agrees to sit in for the band at a gig they have lined up. Since the drummer is in charge of the tempo of the song, he speeds up "That Thing You Do" and in the process creates a future hit song. It's around this time that Mr. White (Tom Hanks) shows up with a recording and touring contract that puts their previous ones to shame. He also renames the band The Wonders because he is tired of people thinking they are called The Oh-need-ers.

Soon the newly minted band, of which Guy is now a permanent member, is getting offered TV showcases and even small parts as house bands in feature films. It's like lightning in a bottle, and the boys embark on a national tour with Jimmy's girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler) in tow. All the success starts to go to their heads, and they soon find themselves fighting with each other more than they perform. Jimmy treats Faye like dirt, and Tina leaves Guy for the local dentist. The band's entire world is about to implode, which might leave them living up to their name as a one-hit wonder.

Hanks was only really known as an actor until "That Thing You Do!," which he directed and wrote the script for while still taking on a sizeable acting role. He does a fantastic job tackling all three roles because the script is a hoot, the direction is perfection, and Mr. White is one of the best characters in the entire film. Though Hanks had previously directed a few episodes of TV, this marked his feature directorial debut, and it is quite impressive. He captures the spirit, colors, and nostalgia of the era with the perspective that only a man who lived through it could possibly provide. Hanks would have been just eight years old in the year the film is set, which makes sense since so many scenes look like a colorful fever dream that a child that age might have. Though Hanks had directed before, this was the first time he had written a script for a film. He shows a real talent for writing dialogue, especially if the viewers are watching the extended Director's Cut of the film, which has an additional thirty-nine minutes of film, much of which is back stories to help round out the characters' personalities.

The film may be about the band, but there would be no story to tell if it wasn't for the exceedingly catchy song that gets all the action going. Though it is initially played as a slow ballad, eventually "That Thing You Do" is turned into a much faster pop song that is absolutely irresistible. It was penned by Adam Schlesinger, who serves as the bassist for Fountains of Wayne, which is a band known for power-pop confections. The song, "That Thing You Do," is not quite in the same vein as Fountains of Wayne's typical fare, which just makes Schlesinger's ability to write such a Beatles-esque tune all the more impressive.

Other than the infinitely hummable song, the best part of "That Thing You Do!" is probably the casting, which is nothing short of perfect. Schaech as the put-upon lead singer is pitch perfect while Tyler plays the part of the breathy ingenue as well as she ever has. Zahn gets the best lines as Lenny and delivers them with spot-on comic timing. However, the standout is Hanks, who floats in and out of the band's life as Mr. White. Whenever he does pop by to advise the boys, it feels like an old friend coming home. That's no surprise, since that's how the audience will likely feel about "That Thing You Do!" with every subsequent viewing.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5