Schmaltzy Is As Schmaltzy Does

Tom Hanks's new movie That Thing You Do! is a slight but catchy little ditty that grows annoying with prolonged exposure. In other words, it's a lot like the song of the same title that sets the plot in motion and pops up repeatedly throughout the film. Hanks, surely the most likable guy in America and a shoo-in to run for president someday, not only directed and plays a pivotal role in the movie, but he also penned both the title song and the screenplay. Given that much Hanks input, it should come as no surprise that in the early going the film leaves much the same impression as its maker -- wholesome, clever, fun, and schmaltzy. But there's one essential difference between Hanks and his writing-directing handiwork: The actor projects depth and strength of character beneath the aw-shucks facade; That Thing You Do! doesn't, and ultimately collapses because of its weaknesses.

The film details the rise and fall of a wide-eyed all-American rock quartet during the summer of 1964. Hanks poignantly captures the soon-to-be-shattered innocence and ebullience of that whole post-Happy Days but pre-Platoon era in Middle America; his affection for the period shows in his attention to detail -- the primitive electric appliances, skinny ties, mod hair styles, vibrant colors, and tapered slacks. Hanks deftly conjures up the Zeitgeist of the early pop music explosion, when "combos" played in pizza parlors, independent record producers and band promoters in pick-up trucks with campers scoured the countryside looking for fodder for the emerging music industry star-making machine, and touring state fairs meant you had really hit the big time.

Introducing the Wonders: Brooding singer-songwriter Jimmy (How to Make an American Quilt heartthrob Johnathon Schaech forsakes the bisexual predatory leer he exhibited in The Doom Generation for Jimmy's steadfast seriousness and artistic pretension); wisecracking lead guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn gets the funniest lines as the inexperienced but girl-crazy fret man); the shy, introverted bass player (Ethan Embry as the band member nobody refers to by name); and level-headed drummer Guy (Tom Everett Scott evoking a young, smirking Tom Hanks at his most ingratiating). Writer-director Hanks fondly introduces you to the four naive young men from Erie, Pennsylvania, who make up the band at the heart of his movie so that you can't help but revel in the spontaneous explosion of joy experienced by the guys, their girlfriends, and their families the first time they hear their recording of "That Thing You Do!" played over the radio. Unfortunately, the movie, like the band, peaks early.

The band's original moniker, the Oneders, gets consistently mispronounced -- Oh-Nee-ders, On-a-dares. Despite the awkward handle, the group lands a showcase in Pittsburgh where they attract the attention of Play-Tone Records executive Mr. White (Hanks), who makes the band his pet project and, as his first order of business, changes their name to the correct spelling. With Mr. White leading the way, the Wonders take to the road with their signature tune and become overnight sensations. Jimmy's girlfriend Faye (sweetly beguiling Liv Tyler) goes along for the ride on a whirlwind cross-country tour that will eventually garner the lads appearances on TV and in fan magazines; they even lip-synch in a beach-blanket movie. But from the time the band links up with Mr. White, the film begins to run out of steam. Hanks telegraphs his punches and gives his movie over to a sort of creeping melodrama. While Tyler's performance is fine, Faye is a minor character and her screen time should be minimal; but Hanks dwells on the impending conflicts between Faye and Jimmy because he needs a device by which to bring the band's problems to a head. The subplot delivers not a single surprise. You know from the outset that a self-absorbed jerk like Jimmy doesn't deserve Faye in the first place and that she's smart enough to figure that out.

Everyone but the Wonders can see the tough times coming. The internal squabbles over artistic control, the twin temptations of money and fame, Jimmy's failure to appreciate his true-blue gal -- Hanks omits none of the cliches. The band's demise, as well as that of Jimmy and Faye's relationship, is a foregone conclusion. When the Wonders finally dissolve, there is no emotional punch; we feel more relieved than saddened. Predictability and lack of imagination mar even the postscript titles relating what eventually became of the characters (an irritating gimmick that should have been retired after National Lampoon's Animal House). What a letdown; like so many rock bands, That Thing You Do! begins with snap and promise but ends with a whimper.

That Thing You Do!
Written and directed by Tom Hanks; with Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry, and Tom Hanks.

 
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