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On Oct. 4, 1996, Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, hit theaters nationwide after getting early reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Hollywood Reporter‘s original review is below.
TORONTO — Happy days are here again with Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!, a perky, nostalgic trip down mid-1960s memory lane, charting the larks and loves of an early Beatles-ish rock band named The Wonders.
This musical merriment should strike some nifty chords with those old codgers who still recall anteing up $3.50 to see The Beatles in 1965. 20th Century Fox should coin some decent dough based on Hanks’ popularity, even if he is directing rather than starring, but this sweet-song movie melody may prove a bit square and squeaky clean for this rap-rehensible age.
Although Hanks doesn’t star, his spittin‘ image appears in the lanky and curly-trussed form of Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), a twentyish drummer who toils away in his father’s Erie, Pennsylvania, hardware store. More Joe Morello than Ringo Starr in his drumming, Guy nevertheless joins up with a local rock band when the regular drummer breaks his arm. In the grand, garage-band tradition, they win a local talent contest with their one original song, “That Thing You Do!” and from there it’s onward and upward to spaghetti joints and state fairs. They’ve even decided on a name, The Wonders.
If you saw that Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, you’ll recognize that Hanks has propped up The Wonders in a basic Beatles alignment: Positioned on their separate circular stage islands with their sharp suits, smiley faces and non-threatening exuberance, they bubble forth with their kicky, happy tune. And, with its zesty bass line and black-girl-group harmonies, “That Thing You Do!” is infectious. You don’t have to read Billboard, however, to predict these bland Wonders will end up, like so many groups, as a “one-hit wonder.”
Indeed, in this nostalgic romp, writer-director Hanks has done everything but outfit The Wonders in Beatle boots, and it’s fun to pick out the Beatle traits. The unspoken group leader and songwriter, Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), who sports Paul’s choir-boy gleam and couples it with John’s pugnacious, spread-legged stage stance, unfortunately has neither of their magical qualities, flashing no charm nor demonstrating any countercultural intelligence.
Front man Jimmy, down to basics, is a drip, and, at best, the other players are nondescript, although Lenny (Steve Zahn) does flash some wry, Lennon-ish wit. It’s clearly Guy, with his laid-back savvy, who is the band’s catalyst, a fact clearly evident to the crotchet label man (Tom Hanks) who signs them up.
Basically, this story tune is The Commitments set in mid-1960s white-bread America, and Hanks’ script is chorded in I-IV-V simplicity. There’s no dark side to this story, no devilish snarl about getting no “Satisfaction.” It’s upbeat and utterly predictable (in a positive way) but it’s also a bit pat and elemental, in large part owing to Hanks’ bland-band characters.
Although Hanks flashes a gentle satiric sensibility and even takes a run at a Richard Lester Hard Day’s Night sort of sequence, this rock ‘n’ roll roadshow is mostly akin tonally and aesthetically to early Ron Howard, namely Happy Days. Full of easy Monkees-like shines, it’s not surprising that first-time director Hanks’ major influence seems to be his former TV director and first big-movie director. Like Howard, he’s winningly middle-class in his values and just a tad off-center in his sensibility.
The chief wonder of this rock ‘n’ roll cast is Tom Everett Scott, whose easy charisma, dreamy smile and undersurface intelligence should shoot him up the acting charts like a bullet. As the wide-eyed girl who tags along with the group, Liv Tyler is fetching and subdued, while Zahn’s performance as the clownish Lenny also is appealing. As the grouchy manager with the heart of gold, Hanks himself does a nice backup turn.
Technical contributions are solid gold, particularly production designer Victor Kempster’s mid-America, Sears catalog look and costume designer Colleen Atwood’s groovy threads. — Duane Byrge, originally published Sept. 16, 1996
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