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Movie Review: THAT THING YOU DO Is As Much Fun in 2013 As It Would Be in 1964

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It is very easy to underrate Tom Hanks’ directorial debut (his feature-length one, anyways), That Thing You Do.  Even had Hanks not set it in the world of 1960s rock-and-roll, the film still would have felt unstuck in time.  It unfolds at such an airy, no-consequences pace, and when all is said and done, it isn’t interested in anything except giving its audience a good time.  Hanks follows the rise and fall of the Wonders, a small-town Pennsylvania band in 1964; they write a hit single, which propels the group to fame and fortune for a little while, and when the bubble breaks, the band members split up and go on to lead reasonably happy lives.  That’s about it.

While Hanks steeps That Thing You Do in the period ephemera of the era (the title song, penned by Fountains of Wayne band member Adam Schlesinger, is immediately catchy, and sounds like it was ripped straight from 1964), the tone of the film hews closer to the goofy, gentle comedies that propelled Hanks to stardom in the 1980s – Splash, The Money Pit, Big – than to something like the more anarchic A Hard Day’s Night.

But just like Splash, The Money Pit, or Big, That Thing You Do endures because it never trades in intelligence for guilelessness.  Hanks wants the proceedings to glide along, and they certainly do; we enjoy watching the Wonders move from state fairs and dance halls to stadiums and Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies.  But lurking at the edges are the tendrils of reality, little reminders that all of this will not last.  Reality asserts itself (delicately) twice in That Thing You Do: Bill Cobbs shows up as a great jazz musician who sits down with Tom Everett Scott’s Guy for a brief jam session, and Hanks’ real-life wife Rita Wilson plays an escort who tries to proposition Guy once he’s made it to Hollywood.

Nothing untoward happens, but the movie takes on a slight sadness in these moments.  Cobbs’ character lets Guy know that while he’s got skills, they aren’t developed yet, and Wilson can’t bring herself to seduce a kid who barely knows what she’s up to.  That part comes later, as both scenes hint that things will get more difficult for the film’s characters, even if we never see those complications appear.

It’s just enough weight to make That Thing You Do matter, and Hanks backgrounds it behind a lot of great music and Tak Fujimoto’s candy-colored cinematography.  That isn’t a criticism; That Thing You Do works so much better since it doesn’t go to the Doors/Almost Famous/Rock Star well of the bad times being really bad.  Hanks doesn’t have it out for any of his characters.  He might laugh at their mistakes, but he’s rooting for them to make it, one way or another.

Down to the walk-ons, Hanks has cast That Thing You Do perfectly; he even gives himself a great supporting role as Mr. White, the Wonders’ pragmatic – but not unsympathetic – manager, who figures out the group’s trajectory and staying power from the moment he meets them.  As Guy, the band’s drummer and the film’s main protagonist, Tom Everett Scott excels at the type of part Hanks probably would have played thirty years ago.  He’s equal parts laconic and wry, and the only member of the Wonders with a little perspective on their sudden fame and fortune.

Guy’s temperament couldn’t be more different from that of Steve Zahn’s guitarist Lenny, who immediately lets success go to his head.  This was Zahn’s first starring role, and the oddball quirks that made him so appealing in Out of Sight and “Treme” are in full force here; his incredulous reaction to the band’s original spelling of “Wonders” remains the picture’s best gag.  Rounding out the on-screen band are Ethan Embry (playing the Wonders’ space-cadet bass player) and Johnathon Schaech, who lends the movie what little overt darkness it has as the group’s frontman, who grows ever colder towards his loyal girlfriend (Liv Tyler, whose wet-eyed innocent routine works here – she’s genuinely engaging and sympathetic).

Hanks also gets good work from then-unknowns like Giovanni Ribisi and Charlize Theron, as well as from a host of cameo appearances that include the likes of Chris Isaak, Jonathan Demme, Kevin Pollak, Peter Scolari, Alex Rocco, Holmes Osborne, and Bryan Cranston.

That Thing You Do is a reminder of how good a good time can be.  It doesn’t go slack or kill brain cells or wallow in melodrama – for Tom Hanks, the dream of the 1960s is better than the messy realities, and he’s pleased as punch to share his dreams with us.

Fox’s Blu-ray looks terrific; Hanks is going for a poppy, Something Wild kinda-visual vibe, and the HD transfer faithfully replicates that look.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is appropriately loud and energetic.

The Blu-ray also contains a fair amount of bonus features.  Most of them are nice, if fluffy: three behind-the-scenes featurettes (“The Story of the Wonders,” “Making That Thing You Do,” and a vintage HBO First Look feature); a cute Wonders reunion from 2007 with Schaech, Scott, Zahn, Embry, and Theron; the “The Wonders! Big in Japan” video showcasing the film’s international publicity tour; and a “Feel Alright” music video that wasn’t in the film.

Best of all are the two versions of That Thing You Do: the 108-minute theatrical cut and a 149-minute extended cut.  In terms of overall enjoyment, I prefer the shorter version; it’s tighter and funnier, and it doesn’t get bogged down in the extended version’s unnecessary subplot about Theron’s character.  But the extended cut certainly isn’t a chore, and the extra scenes offer more details about the Wonders’ rise to stardom, as well as a nice little addition that further humanizes Hanks’ Mr. White.  If you haven’t seen the movie, start with the theatrical cut, and if you like it, then give the longer version a spin.

That Thing You Do is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.