Tom Hanks understands likable. More than that, he practically owns the quality. Now, with blithe assurance and considerable success he's transferred title over to "That Thing You Do!," his cheerful and high-spirited debut as a writer-director.
That's harder to do than it sounds, because likable is a step from sappy and sentimental, a morass that Hanks deftly avoids. Good-humored and just about reeking of innocence, "That Thing You Do!" is what a character has in mind when he asks for "something happy, peppy, up-tempo." Leaving audiences feeling good is very much, and very successfully, on its mind.
The story of a 1964 rock band's climb to the pinnacle of teen mania is so thoroughly Hanks' project that he cast a look-alike in the leading role, showcased wife Rita Wilson as a sexy cocktail waitress and had a hand in writing the film's original songs. Plus, in one of "That Thing You Do!'s" nicely edgy touches, he's winked at the audience by giving himself perhaps the least ingratiating role in the picture.
Something that Hanks hasn't done is equally important. Unlike many of the recent pictures he's starred in ("Forrest Gump" comes quickly to mind), "That Thing You Do!" doesn't pretend to any great depth or insight into the human condition. Determinedly small scale, with even its moments of pleasant satire exactly calibrated, it successfully creates a world of clever make-believe where everyone is ever so nice almost all the time.
Critical to the film's infectious energy is its bouncy soundtrack, the dozen or so bubble-gum/early Beatles pastiches that form an almost constant backdrop and help propel "That Thing's" simple story snappily forward.
Before there is the music, there are the guys, a youthful band in the making headquartered in Erie, Pa., (effectively doubled on screen by nearby Orange). Lead singer and songwriter Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech) is so desperate for a group name he ends up with the too-clever Oneders, which, in one of the film's running gags, everyone keeps mispronouncing.
Soon there is another crisis. The drummer breaks his arm right before the band's debut at a college talent show. The guys think about Guy Patterson (the Hanks-ish Tom Everett Scott), a contented soul who dabbles on the drums in the basement of his dad's appliance store. It's a wise choice.
Without any plan or warning, Guy's driving drumbeat turns "That Thing You Do!," Jimmy's soulful ballad, into a hot dance number. The guys win the talent show, get a gig at a pizzeria near the airport, pick up a manager who works out of his camper, and unnerve their friends and family by howling like delighted fiends when their record gets some Erie airplay.
Enter the name-impaired Mr. White (Hanks), a pulled-together executive with Play-Tone records, who becomes the group's new manager. He coordinates their clothes (sharply designed by Colleen Atwood), changes their name to the more sensible Wonders and masterminds a summer tour of state fairs plus the steady rise of "That Thing You Do!" on the singles charts. Pretty heady stuff for guys who consider Steubenville and Pittsburgh the equivalent of London and Paris.
Expected though it is, its undeniably fun to see the Wonders gee-whiz their way to success and then try to deal with its aftereffects. Hanks and veteran casting director Howard Feuer have very shrewdly peopled this picture from top to bottom, but their skill is especially noticeable in the ensemble that is the center of attention.
Everett Scott is appropriately handsome and charming as the romantic lead, and Schaech (the hunk who distracted Winona Ryder in "How to Make an American Quilt") is convincingly whiny and sensitive as the sad-eyed songwriter.
Steve Zahn as lead guitarist Lenny and Ethan Embry as the nameless bass player get most of the laughs, and a special kind word should go to Liv Tyler, on the money as Lenny's sweet girlfriend Faye Dolan. It's pleasant to see her playing an unspoiled teenager close to her own age and not the fantasy creation of various aging male directors.
Perhaps "That Thing You Do's!" trickiest accomplishment is allowing us to believe that the early 1960s was a simpler, happier time, devoid of the violence and strife that are so much on everyone's mind today. We know it wasn't, but Hanks and company allow us to dream, and there's something to be said for that.
* MPAA rating: PG, for some language. Times guidelines: genial throughout.
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'That Thing You Do!'
Tom Everett Scott: Guy Patterson
Liv Tyler: Faye Dolan
Johnathon Schaech: Jimmy
Steve Zahn: Lenny
Ethan Embry: The Bass Player
Tom Hanks: Mr. White
Charlize Theron: Tina
A Clinica Estetico production in association with Clavius Base, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Tom Hanks. Producers Gary Goetzman, Jonathan Demme, Edward Saxon. Screenplay Tom Hanks. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. Editor Richard Chew. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music Howard Shore. Production design Victor Kempster. Art director Dan Webster. Set decorator Merideth Boswell. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.