That Thing You Do (1996)
d. Tom Hanks
[NOTE: This review if for the theatrical release of That Thing You Do…The director’s cut now available as an extra on some DVD packages is a classic example of more amounting to less.]
Except for a couple of key moments, That Thing You Do, Tom Hanks’ breeezy homage to the garage band ethos of the 1960s, exists entirely on the surface. And that’s fine, because, this time, the surface carries a real story and because great care is taken to present it in all its glory.
My favorite moment on that surface, comes when Steve Zahn’s guitar playing wiseacre and general layabout who can’t get a date, hits on the receptionist at the record company his band, The Wonders, has been signed to, and not only ends up with a date, but a quickie marriage in Vegas to a former Playboy bunny who doesn’t forget to hang on to her cigarette for the wedding photo.
If that doesn’t make you laugh, this movie’s probably not for you.
If this movie is for you, then by the time you reach that scene, you’ve been treated to literally hundreds of sharply observed details of Life in America during its most recent Great Upheaval. For once, the focus is on the lives that the maelstrom was meant to disrupt and discard, rather than the movers and shakers. It’s like an inversion of Baby It’s You (the greatest movie about the Sixties).
There, the future is always present–a permanent, nagging challenge to all the conventions that were about to be cast aside. Here, the future doesn’t matter. Not the nation’s future, or–despite an American Graffiti-style coda (to speak of movies that carry the weight of the future) to catch us up on what happened to everybody–those of the characters themselves.
That’s appropriate, too, because, beyond those under-the-skin moments I mentioned (about which more in a minute), all the characters are on the surface of the surface.
They could be anybody.
And that was the Rock and Roll America genius of the garage-band moment itself. The idea that anybody–literally anybody–might have a great record in them. In Garage Band America, it happened over and over, enough to generate enough entries on the Billboard Hot 100 (which plays a prominent role in threading the plot together in That Thing You Do) to fill it for at least a week, but cult-like devotion–even to records that didn’t make the chart–that has lasted and grown over half a century and, occasionally, in the manner of all great American passions, reached extremes about equal parts ridiculous and sublime.
If you laughed at the Playboy bunny holding a cigarette while she married the guitar player of the latest national sensation, The Wonders, from Eerie, P-A in Vegas, then this movie’s for you, even if it doesn’t transcend antecedents like Graffiti and (I’m told) The Commitments. It’s a story worth telling from more than one angle, and this telling doesn’t overplay its hand.
It may be so careful in that last respect that it can’t help representing a shallower take than those others. Such accusations have been made and they aren’t without merit.
But it cuts deeper than its main intention on a couple of levels:
One is the reminder (not always kept at the forefront of the Garage Band Narrative, especially when it’s being referenced as a forerunner of something Really Important like Punk) that, in every band who made it, there was at least somebody who wanted to make it–wanted to live something closer to a dream than a reality without forgetting that it’s the people stuck in boring old reality (be it your dad’s appliance shop or the military) who make all dreams possible.
Two: Those key moments I mentioned above, both of which belong to Liv Tyler.
Once, when she’s the first person to hear the band’s song come on the radio for the first time and takes off down the streets of downtown Eerie, P-A, with a fusion of personal and communal joy that is no longer possible and barely imaginable in this land our dreams have made.
And then, near the end, as the joyride comes crashing down and she finally says You stay away from me to the boy whose love she lost to the band’s brief moment of glory because, in The Wonders, he was the one who wanted to make it.
Those are moments any good actress would treasure–what they meant to Liv Tyler, the daughter of people (Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and groupie extraordinaire Bebe Buell), whose lives represented the willful abandonment of the cultural norms so lovingly portrayed here as completely as Trump Tower’s golden toilets define the obscenities of excess, is anybody’s guess.
I hope she’s proud of them. They’re more than enough to keep That Thing You Do from floating away on a sea of nostalgia–and to make it worth watching forever.