Look past the feel-good surface, and you'll find a depth and poignance not often found in comedies. Rating: 8 out of 10.
I remember seeing previews for That Thing You Do! and not expecting much. It was Tom Hanks' first movie as a director, and it looked like a take-off on the Beatles. Still, since it appeared to be a movie about rock'n'roll, I knew I'd have to see it.
I was surprised on many levels by how well the movie actually worked. First, it captures the magic of being in a band when things finally start to click. In the late 1980s my best friend and I recorded some backing tracks with my sister's cheesy keyboard and laid our guitar tracks on top of that in an empty church on a Saturday night. When we played it back and it actually sounded good, it was my first experience with the "I can't believe it was us that made that" feeling; this movie evokes that perfectly. Despite extremely humble beginnings, the Wonders (the artists formerly known as Oneders) find their magic carpet ride on the song that is the title of the movie. As others have pointed out, you hear that song about a million times in the movie, but I didn't mind since it seems to go along with the obvious theme (one-hit wonders).
What really carry the movie are the incredible characterizations. I say characterizations and not characters because the characters themselves seem meant as types and not as lifelike people in many ways, but the cast infatuated me with their performances. The band is made up of the temperamental, so-called genius singer Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech), who is more engaging and effectively repulsing here than anywhere else I've seen. Steve Zahn reaches perfection as the flaky goofball guitarist Lenny. His lines are hilarious and he nails them; great job by both him and Hanks not to screw it up by taking it too far (as often happens with Zahn's characters). The Bass Player (Ethan Embry) is the archetypical nerd, and thus his namelessness is apt; even in the fictional "where are they now" blurbs at the end, he is only called T.B. Player. But you can see the roots of his hapless innocent in Can't Hardly Wait in his strong performance here. I thought Liv Tyler was great as Faye; I didn't then know who she was, and I actually prefer her as the wide-eyed innocent portrayed here (you know, before the big hit about the asteroid...the one with the song by her daddy).
The best-realized character is drummer Guy Patterson, played in career-making fashion by Tom Everett Scott. His charisma is electric; just as his character holds the band together both personally and musically, he makes this movie work. Again credit must go to Hanks, because Scott's movies since are mostly lemons (American Werewolf in Paris and the miserable The Love Letter). I find myself wanting to call him a scene-stealer, but that title could fit several of the rest of the cast just as well. The only one I thought fell into the wasted space category was Charlize Theron, but that character was more of a prop than anything, wasn't it?
And yes, this is a fun-spirited movie, but filled with subtle humor, almost Garrison Keillor-like touches about small-town kids going to the big time, and it moves along quite well. Also priceless are some of the bit characters such as Lamarr (Obba Babatundé) and Mr. White (Hanks himself).
All told, Tom Hanks made a simple, enjoyable comedy without resorting to brainless sight gags or gagfests, but instead focusing on drawing great performances from a then-mostly-unknown cast. If you missed this when it came around the theatres, blame it on the poor marketing, and pick it up. And no, I don't think you have to like the title song to enjoy this film. But it does help. See this one and prove to yourself that a movie can be light and fun without being ditzy or juvenile. Go ahead...it's okay to smile at the movies.
Worth renting? Yep.
Worth buying? Yep.
Suitable for kids? I think so.
Director: Tom Hanks
Length: 108 minutes
Click here for complete details at IMDB.com.
Review copyright 2003 by Toby Baldwin; originally written November 6, 2001
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