That Thing You Do! Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

One hit wonders. A very common tale.
That Thing You Do box art

"That Thing You Do!", Tom Hanks' writing and directorial debut, is an innocuous piece of infectious bubblegum pop that is snappy and full of flavor. However, like any sweet diversion, there is the danger of chewing too long until all the taste is gone and further chewing only leaves you with a gnawing sensation of nausea. Thankfully, TTYD never comes to this and more-or-less retains its upbeat tone to the end.

Open Saturday ten to ten. Open Sunday twelve to six... open on Sunday from twelve to six! You know, I don't believe I want to live in a country where you stay open on Sunday to business. You shouldn't have to work on Sunday to support your family.

The story begins in 1964 in Erie, Pennsylvania. It is an interesting time in America, sandwiched between the paranoia of McCarthyism of the 1950s and the disillusionment that sprung from the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. It was a time when the youth of America had a semblance of innocence-- the belief that anything was achievable and that the system would not set limitations on success. Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) has a domestic existence selling home appliances in his father's store. His father is a firm believer in the status quo, and expects his son to follow in his footsteps. The drummer of an un-named band (the best they can come up with are "The Heardsmen" or "The Chordvettes") breaks his arm and they need a replacement. Guy is drafted and he joins the newly named "One-Ders": the anal-retentive singer/songwriter Jimmy Mattingly (Jonathan Schaech), the playful guitarist/singer Lenny (Steve Zahn), and the nerdy nameless bass player (Ethan Embry). At a variety show performance at a local college, Guy improvises a catchy drumbeat for a song written by Jimmy, and it proves to be a big hit. Thus, "That Thing You Do!" becomes a pop phenomenon. From there, the band begins its ascent to fame and fortune: a regular gig at a local pizza parlor, the cutting of a record of their hit song, airplay on the radio, their signing onto Play-tone Records with Mr. White (Tom Hanks) as their manager, the subsequent name change to "The Wonders" (after everyone mangled their previous name, pronouncing it O-N-EE-DERS), and an appearance on national television.

What, are you crazy?! A man with a really nice camper wants to put our song on the radio! Gimme a pen, I'm signin'. You're signin'. We're all signin'.

There are so many memorable moments in this whimsical fairy-tale-turned-tragedy. When "That Thing You Do!" is first played on the radio, Faye Dolan, Jimmy's girlfriend, runs through the streets of town shouting in disbelief, ending up at the Patterson appliance store, where Guy then turns on every radio in the store to that station. They are soon joined by the rest of the band, and they dance joyfully around the store, to the chagrin of Mr. Patterson. A montage sequence of the band's tour is well-done, bringing to mind the antics of "The Monkees". There is a hilarious scene where The Wonders have a guest appearance on a "Beach Blanket Bimbo"-type of movie. And the apex of their careers, an appearance on a network television variety show, effectively captures the Sixties the way I remember it being portrayed on television.

Despite the carnival atmosphere of this film, the subplot of a love triangle between Jimmy, Faye, and Guy is poorly developed and is the film's major missed opportunity. First of all, Jimmy is the antithesis of a good boyfriend to Faye at the beginning of TTYD, and it is difficult to comprehend what Faye sees in him or why she even stays with him. Second, the character of Faye is mostly wasted in this film, who merely just hangs around backstage as The Wonders do that thing they do. Though she is sympathetic, she is also bland-- we don't really get to know her that well. Guy starts of with a girlfriend, Tina (Charlize Theron, last seen in "2 Days in the Valley"), back in Erie, Pennsylvania, but she disappears out of the story too quickly for anything interesting to happen. Though there is some minor sexual tension created in the interactions between Faye and Guy as the band goes on tour, nothing really happens between them until Jimmy cruelly dumps her. Even though the development of such a triangle is cliché in rock-and-roll movie, it does bring another level of conflict into the dynamics of the story and can be engaging if built up properly. However, instead of creating good drama with the romantic subplot and reflecting on the changes that new-found fame can bring to a relationship, what Tom Hanks ends up with is an emotionally-devoid and somewhat contrived denouement that misses the mark.

Ain't no way to keep a band together. Bands come and go. Gotta keep on playin', no matter with who.

Given the time-frame in which TTYD takes place in, it is not the system that eventually leads to the fall of The Wonders. None of the 'establishment' characters, including Mr. White, deceive or betray the trust of the band (contrast this with the post-Watergate-X-Files-skeptic's-view of leadership). It is the loss of focus by each member of the band that contributes to their eventual downfall. Jimmy, the consistently dour lead singer/songwriter, wants to maintain his 'creative' integrity. The unnamed bass player joins the Marines to serve his country. Lenny just wants to get married. Which leaves Guy, the only member whose focus is actually on the band and the love of making music.

You can tell that Tom Hanks had the character of Guy Patterson in mind for himself when he wrote the screenplay. And the casting of Scott as Guy Patterson is inspired. Scott not only bears a passing resemblance to Hanks, but he also brings the same golly-gee mannerisms of the younger "Bosom Buddies"-era Tom Hanks to the role. Compared to Guy, the rest of the characters are mere cardboard cut-outs, caricatures of personality-types that populate this kind of film, totally lacking any depth. The only other character worth mentioning is Lemar, a bellhop at the Ambassador Hotel, where the band stays while in Los Angeles. He serves as a catalyst in the relationship between Guy and Faye, and is also a stabilizing element against the encroaching pathos at the end of the film, due to his upbeat outlook. On a metaphorical basis, one can note that as a bellhop, he helps patrons of the hotel with their baggage... both literally and figuratively.

Despite the faults of the story, TTYD still manages to please with a combination of a feel-good sensibility, production design that captures the nostalgia of the Beatlemania years, moments of enlivened film-making, and of course, that great song that gets played in several incarnations throughout the film, "That Thing You Do!".


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