Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 2, 2007)
Tom Hanks: Renaissance man? While he hasn’t earned that lofty title just yet, in 1996 he made one big step toward becoming a triple threat. Through a long series of hit films, Hanks long ago established himself as one of the most successful actors of all-time. He won Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump and also starred in many huge successes.
Not content to simply star in vehicles created by others, Hanks stepped behind the camera for 1996’s That Thing You Do!. Although he also performed in a small role, Hanks’ main contributions to the piece were as its director and writer. Unfortunately, the movie underperformed at the box office, so it gets lost in the Hanks shuffle. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s not a fine film. Despite its relative anonymity, That Thing You Do! provides a terrific experience filled with charm, humor and fun.
The movie takes place in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1964. In his early twenties, Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) works at his Dad’s appliance store and he drums along with jazz records for fun. He’s never played in a serious band, but some friends recruit him to perform at a college talent show when their drummer breaks his arm.
As such, Guy quickly joins the “One-ders” - singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist Jimmy (Jonathon Schaech), lead guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn), and The Bass Player (Ethan Embry) - and a quick run-through of their showcase song - “That Thing You Do” - shows that he has the chops to replace injured Chad (Giovanni Ribisi). Actually, he more than fills Chad’s shoes. Guy’s a vastly superior drummer, and when his enthusiasm gets the best of him at the talent show, he transforms the ballad into a peppy pop tune, all to the delight of the crowd.
The One-ders easily win the contest and their stars begin to rise. They get a gig at a pizza shop, which leads them to record a self-produced single, which interests a manager (Chris Ellis) who gets them on the radio. Not long after that, a real record label comes a-calling, and after A&R man Mr. White (Hanks) signs the band, soon the One-ders - mercifully renamed the Wonders - are on the fast track to become a nationally-famous act.
As implied in the name of the band, the film is a generous nod to the legions of one-hit wonders who’ve appeared over the years, so it’s virtually inevitable that fortunes will eventually sour for the Wonders. Nonetheless, the movie follows their path to brief fame with affection and glee, and it all creates a charming and entertaining experience.
First of all, I’ll get some minor complaints out of the way. The movie’s main flaw is that it sputters during its second half. Once the Wonders achieve real success, the story becomes less interesting, especially because the cracks start to show. Jimmy always was the temperamental talent behind the band, and he views himself in an increasingly serious manner with inevitable negative repercussions for the group. Most of the movie’s second half takes place during the band’s trip to Los Angeles. There they perform a variety of promotional duties while Jimmy whines about his desire to cut new songs. These segments still work, but they lack the spark of the film’s first 50 minutes or so.
The story largely wastes Charlize Theron in a thankless and fairly unnecessary role. She plays Tina, Guy’s girlfriend in Erie. A prim and uptight throwback to the Fifties, Tina and Guy always seem wrong for each other, and her departure from the scene feels inevitable. Much of the movie leads to a union between Guy and Jimmy’s girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler), and I’m not sure why we needed to see Tina. I guess Hanks felt Guy needed to have some signs of romantic life before he connects with Faye, and Tina also provides a shorthand look at why Faye’s so terrific. Through their visual styles, Tina represents the stiff and stodgy Fifties while Faye looks ahead to the wild and loose Sixties. Still, I think Tina serves little purpose and doesn’t really add anything to the film.
I also feel that Hanks got a little cutesy at times with some references. The frequent mispronunciations of the “One-ders” - always called the “O-need-ers” - get a little stale, though a couple of fun gags revolve around them. The lack of a name for the bass player is a minor tip of the cap to the often-anonymous nature of these performers. Bassists tend to be quieter and recede to the background more than other instrumentalists, which is why Hanks fails to give a moniker to this character. That’s a little too precious for my liking.
However, these are minor quibbles that do little to detract from a fabulous film. I wasn’t alive during this area, so I can only speculate about the movie’s accuracy, but I do know that it all feels right. Hanks captures the innocence and charm of the period with spark and excitement, and he especially relates the thrill of being in a band. The early segments in which the group starts to coalesce and hit a groove are as thrilling as anything in an action film. This may sound silly, but when the One-ders launch into that talent show rendition of the song, I get goose bumps. I can sense the life and vitality that would course through such a situation, and it makes me nearly giddy to watch it.
The film supplies other instances of similar emotions. When the single first gets played on the radio, Hanks stages this in an ingenious manner, whereby Faye hears it initially and then alerts all the others through screaming and dial-turning. The simple joy and glee seen in these kinds of sequences was absolutely charming and delightful, and Thing piles on many of these moments.
Having never been in any band - much less a successful one - I can’t really judge the accuracy with which Hanks depicts these events, but it all seems quite true to life. It must be a tremendous thrill to go through the various stages seen in the movie, and Hanks portrays all of them with a wonderful honesty. There’s nothing cynical or ironic about the movie, as it always seems nicely genuine and affectionate.
Some have criticized Thing for its softness, especially as it relates to Hanks’ Mr. White. They felt that character should have been nastier and more ruthless in his exploitation of the Wonders because of the heartless nature of the music business, and some thought that Hanks was unwilling to do this because he didn’t want to sully his “nice guy” reputation. That may well be the truth, but this neglects one important reason why Mr. White should receive a generally positive portrayal: Thing isn’t a documentary portrayal of the record industry. It’s meant to be a loving nod to the fun and peppy side of the biz. The fact it takes place decades in the past makes it easier to portray the innocence of the experience, but even if it were set in the present, I’d still think it’d be done best with a similar positivity. This isn’t a movie that wants to revel in the dark side; it just wants to show how much fun it can be to be in a band and have a hit.
Frankly, I think that the movie probably makes Jimmy too nasty a character. He’s always rather sullen and self-absorbed, but the manner in which he turns on Faye toward the end seems to be unnecessarily cruel. Granted, this has to happen to ensure that the audience will accept the eventual Guy/Faye union, but I would prefer a less-negative portrayal of Jimmy. All of the other band members are allowed to leave the audience fond of them, so it’s a shame he has to be the baddie.
Nonetheless, I genuinely love That Thing You Do!. It’s not a flawless piece of filmmaking, but it’s often bright, funny, charming and delightful. The movie maintains humor, innocence, romance and glee at high levels and manages to do so without any tawdry or mean-spirited elements. If this is an indication of his talents, as far as I’m concerned, Tom Hanks is permitted behind the camera any time he wants.
Note that this DVD includes both the theatrical version discussed above along with an extended cut of Thing. How much longer is it? Quite a lot, as the new rendition runs 147 minutes instead of the original’s 105 minutes.
That means a great deal of added footage to discuss. If you don’t want to know about the additions, skip ahead to the technical review portion of the article.
3:52-8:34 - Guy drives home from work and runs into an irritated Tina; they then go back to his place to make out and talk about their relationship and the future;
9:15-10:15 - Guy tells Faye he dinged her bumper;
11:27-12:25 - Guy talks with his dad about moving the store;
12:58-13:20 - Aftermath of Chad’s injury;
15:41-17:28 - Tina at the dentist’s office and the guys start their rehearsal;
25:45-27:03 - Rehearsals and Guy flirts with Faye;
32:47-33:12 - Jimmy pushes to record a second song;
35:17-38:03 - Someone shoots off fire extinguisher during concert and starts a riot; we also see Guy’s family read about this in the paper;
41:07-43:48 - After the band signs with Phil, and Tina goes back to the dentist; the band waits to hear their song on the radio;
46:58-47:07 – A little more of Guy and Tina on the phone;
48:16-56:35 - A little more of Guy after the call, and Phil stops by to see him with a gig; we see the band arrive at the show and settle in at the venue; they also meet Boss Vic Koss and Guy chats with Faye;
59:17-59:20 – Brief shot of Koss;
1:05:05-1:06:00 - Guys tries to call Tina but she’s golfing with her dentist;
1:06:35-1:06:50 – TBP tries to meet the Chantrellines;
1:10:47-1:13:20 - Tina hears “That Thing” on the radio at the dentist’s office; Longer “rising up the charts” montage;
1:13:45-1:14:10 - Chad gets the job at Patterson’s;
1:18:46-1:19:23 - Faye discusses Guy’s relationship with Tina with Mr. White and we see Tina with the dentist;
1:26:20-1:26:32 – Mr. White asks about Faye’s illness;
1:30:02-1:30:19 – Faye sick at the hotel;
1:31:57-1:32:30 - More at the jazz radio station;
1:33:28-1:34:10 – Sol tells a story about how he “discovered” the band;
1:34:50-1:35:55 - More of Lenny and Kitty, and Sol shows how to make a sandwich;
1:44:40-1:47:43 - Margueritte drives a drunk Guy back to the hotel; Mr. White tells Guy that the band got a TV job;
1:49:38-1:50:43 - TV show rehearsals;
1:52:05-1:53:53 - Faye arrives at the studio, Jimmy pesters Mr. White before the show, and other preparations for the show;
2:00:25-2:00:45 – More of the after-show party;
2:02:52-2:03:20 – More of Faye’s breakup with Jimmy;
2:11:45-2:14:48 - Guy calls the jazz DJ to tell him about his jam session with Del Paxton and he gets a job offer; Guy interviews Paxton; Faye starts to leave the hotel but Lamarr detains her;
2:15:29-2:16:23 – The start of the diner chat between Guy and Faye.
Some of these sequences include footage already in the final cut; these pop in and out of some new pieces. We get a few very short extensions that were too brief to mention, such as an extra second when TBP announces his enlistment in the Marines.
We also find a few altered lines. For instance, during the extended cut, when Tina tells Guy she’ll spend all day at the dentist’s office, he states “That sounds like H-E-double-toothpicks”. In the theatrical edition, he says “you’re going to miss 2000 screaming fans going crazy for yours truly”.
The most significant changes in the story revolve around more of an emphasis on Tina as well as a stronger look at the relationship between Faye and Guy. In regard to the latter, I thought Tina was a superfluous character in the theatrical cut, so more of her isn’t better, especially since so much of the footage is redundant. In the 1996 cut, we quickly figure out that Tina abandons Guy for her dentist. The extended version tacks on shot after shot of the pair together. Why? We already understand what happened; all these additional glimpses of them prove pointless.
Actually, I thought one change in dialogue meant that Tina would make a third act reappearance. When Faye talks to Mr. White about Tina in the theatrical cut, she tells him that Tina broke up with Guy to be with her dentist. Here she doesn’t explain matters and simply says that they fizzled out for no known reason. Since we also see Tina’s awareness of the Wonders’ success in the longer edition, I figured this all set up a payoff for Tina in the end. Nope – she eventually fades away, never to return. That just leaves us with all those extra shots of her that go nowhere.
I don’t think the additional material with Guy and Faye helps matters either. The theatrical cut more than adequately conveys how good they are with each other. More of that footage proves unnecessary, as it just repeats information we already know.
A few interesting revelations appear. For one, Mr. White is gay, and for another, TBP bangs his Chantrelline girlfriend early in their relationship. Otherwise, not much in the way of new info crops up here. The footage just tends to reiterate already-known information or throw out a few jokes. Those do tend to be funny, at least, especially when we see more of Lenny.
As a fan of Thing, I think it’s fun to check out all this cut footage. However, I don’t plan to watch the extended version of the film a second time. The theatrical cut already dragged a bit during its second half, and 147 minutes is a looooong running time for a light comedy like this. It’s cool that we can view the alternate Thing, but I strongly prefer the theatrical cut.