Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


March 6, 2015

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Doing That Thing You Do!

Rob gushes over a lazy weekend favorite. 

Some films are made to challenge us. They push us off-kilter and teach us lessons we didn't know we needed to learn. Often, these films become the Official Canon, social and artistic landmarks that we preserve and defend like precious museum pieces. But honestly, how many of them become our favorites? How many can you really point to as great Sunday afternoon cable movies? Repertory screenings aside, how often do you actually sit down to watch Citizen Kane or Rashamon? Instead, consider the warm blanket movies. The sugary pop that goes down smooth. Consider Tom Hanks. His writing/directorial debut That Thing You Do! is one of these films: Safe, cozy, and reliable. It's, well, the Tom Hanks of movies. It's a nostalgic romp through the sixties pop landscape that chronicles the rise and fall of The Wonders, a Pennsylvania garage band just charming enough to get famous and just naive enough to fall apart. That Thing You Do! is an effortless joy, a pitch-perfect story from America's Dad about the way things were Back in His Day. Do yourself a favor and listen.

Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) is just an everyday kid from Eerie, PA. He's got a cushy job in his dad's appliance store, a sexy (though slightly aloof) girlfriend (Charlize Theron), and just enough time at the end of the night to play drums along with the records of his jazz heroes. What then, could he possibly want with the likes of The One-ders, a local band made up of an insufferable jackass (Johnathon Schaech), a dimwitted ham (Steve Zahn), and an enigmatic loner (Ethan Embry)? For one, he loves to play live in front of people. For two, it's a chance to hang out with Faye (Liv Tyler). When their drummer (Giovanni Ribisi) breaks his arm, the band approaches Guy as a replacement. No harm in one gig, he figures. He learns a few three-chord pop ballads and decides it's worth a shot.

But our Guy is a musician, not a puppet. He decides to make things interesting by speeding up the tempo of "That Thing You Do" mid-performance. This pisses Jimmy off (he's the insufferable jackass and "talent" of the group), but it also puts the quartet on the fast-track to superstardom. The title track is an absolute earworm (seriously reconsider that urge to listen to it right now) that eventually brings them face to face with Play-Tone Records producer Andy White (Hanks). Mr. White cleans them up, polishes their sound, and presents them to the world as the newest rock royalty. If only things stayed this easy forever.

Most contemporary reviews of That Thing You Do! called it entertaining but inconsequential. It's a fair critique, but it's also to the film's credit. There are no grand lessons to learn, no revelations to reveal. Guy starts the film a good guy and ends it a good guy. Jimmy's hubris eventually spoils the party, and Lenny's ignorance gets him left behind. But Mr. Hanks' goal was to deal in archetypes. That's the point. Like the screaming girls in the fictional crowds, the film's audience molds the boys into easily-digestible paradigms and then spits them out once they become irrelevant. Same as it ever was. (When Guy laments the inevitable breakup and apologizes to Mr. White for breeching contract, White assures him, "It's a very common tale.")

Not having experienced the sixties, I can only say that That Thing You Do! looks and feels like the sixties of legend (or at least of Mad Men). The guitars, clothes, and Mid-Western values all check out ("I don't believe I want to live in a country where you have to open on Sunday to stay in business"). It's also clear that Mr. Hanks has been around the block in the industry: The hilariously candid television interview with astronaut Gus Grissom is revealed to be scripted. Flamboyant Play-Tone Records founder Sol Siler could care less about Jimmy's artistic aspirations. The Wonders are forced to cover songs from other Play-Tone artists and appear in an Avalon/Funicello-esque beach party movie. Aging stars warn the boys to watch their money and never trust the label. The film manages to comment on the darker side of stardom without vilifying it. It's part of the journey, Hanks assures us. A very common tale.

Now: The song. Get used to it. You're going to hear it a lot. The genius of That Thing You Do!, though, is that it always appears during narratively or thematically significant moments (you only actually hear the whole song in its final version twice, though your brain may trick you into believing otherwise). Hanks has also played in enough bands himself to get it right: Listen to how long it takes the rest of the band to get into the right tempo when Guy speeds things up. Listen to how off-key Lenny's backup vocals are for the first few performances. Notice the grander and grander production value of their sets (from tiny talent show stage to nationally televised amphitheater). Hanks also knew we'd get tired of the title track eventually and mixes in several other catchy tunes ("Dance With Me Tonight" and "I Need You" are personal favorites). This is a film that loves music.

Other highlights: The casting is absolutely dead-on. Steve Zahn's improvisational wit is on full display here, and Johnathon Schaech conveys enough of that brooding artist vibe to help us see why Faye would fall for him. Of course, the obvious Hanks avatar is Tom Everett Scott (I mean, he looks just like him), and Scott's best moments are when he's discussing jazz or Faye (his two favorite subjects). It's also an exceptionally well-edited film, made even more evident by watching Hanks' longer director's cut included on the Blu-Ray. Editor Richard Chew (Star Wars) works his usual magic: Montages are used to keep the drier moments lively, and most of the goofier bits have been left out to keep the story moving. No wonder some found the film forgettable: It never stops being entertaining long enough for us to really think about it.

Nostalgic passion pieces have a tendency to be bloated and repetitive, but That Thing You Do! is honest and kind. It's not only a love letter to the sixties, but to the kinds of movies the sixties turned out (note the decidedly non-ironic use of Lamarr, the Wise Black Man). It's a bit saccharine, sure, but in that good way. It doesn't go period crazy, either. Pop culture references are not used in the place of jokes (looking at you, The Goldbergs). The period is actually used to convey the timelessness and universality of the story. This was fame in 1964, in 1996 (when the film was released), and today. A very common tale.

That Thing You Do! is available on DVD and Blu-Ray at

Rob DiCristino writes and podcasts for The Ugly Club (@UglyClubPodcast). Follow him on Twitter @RobDiCristino. He mostly tweets about Ben Affleck.