In every life there comes a time when that dream you dream becomes that thing you do.
A positive, light-hearted slice of 1964 Americana, That Thing You Do! is a well-crafted, genuinely entertaining film thanks to the triple-threat talents of Tom Hanks and a top-notch group of young actors. Excellent technical merits and a sprinkling of extra content add up to a decent disc from 20th Century Fox.
Facts of the Case
The dull life of Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), who works at his father's appliance store in Erie, Pennsylvania, is abruptly changed by fate. His friends, Jimmy Mattingly (Johnathon Schaech) and Lenny Haise (Steve Zahn) are desperate when their drummer, Chad (Giovanni Ribisi), breaks an arm before a local performance. They convince Guy to substitute, and when he does, he turns the band (named the "Oneders") on its head. With a four-times faster tempo, a slow "That Thing You Do!" becomes a peppy, snappy crowd-pleaser. Its success propels the band into more lucrative gigs, even attracting the attention of local talent agent Phil Horace (Chris Ellis).
Horace gets them local airplay and a gig in Pittsburgh, leading to the attentions of Play-Tone Records in the person of Mr. White (Tom Hanks). Under Mr. White's tutelage, the newly minted Wonders, with Jimmy's girlfriend and costume helper Faye (Liv Tyler) in tow, embark on a tour of state fairs with the Play-Tone "stable of artists." The more they tour, the more popular their title song gets, until it is so popular that they bid adieu to state fairs and hello to Hollywood. Just as their efforts are bearing fruit, divergent personalities, the pressure of celebrity and the lures of California place great stress upon the Wonders. Personal and professional relationships are thrown into flux, and in the aftermath, life still goes on.
As Tom Hanks mentions on the featurette, "What I'm truly hoping for is that the audience is able to sit down and watch this thing and say, 'That was an incredibly refreshing change of pace.'" This is the bottom line for That Thing You Do!, a pleasing, infectious antidote to the usual boorish action film, gross-out comedy, or any of the typical Hollywood drivel. When I don't check my watch at least once during a film, that's a rare compliment to a film's consistent entertainment. Safe for the whole family, but with just enough serious reality to keep the natural sweetness from diabetic levels, That Thing You Do! is an auspicious effort for everyone's favorite "Bosom Buddies" co-star.
With the aforementioned Tom Hanks seizing the moment and exploiting his star-momentum in the wake of Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, and Apollo 13, That Thing You Do! came into being as a labor of his love, shaped from the writing foundation on up through the directorial fusing of the parts into a poetic whole (with a little help from Oscar-winning pal Jonathan Demme). Maybe Tom Hanks harbors a secret fantasy of being a teen-idol rock star, but whatever drew him to this project, he clearly has great affection for the life and times of the British Invasion aftermath. Drawing intentional parallels with the Beatles and throwing in a number of Apollo 13 references, Hanks created a collection of unique characters and cast them to perfection, grafting ideal flesh onto his writing bones.
As I said, the casting is so perfect that the talents of the actors are used to their utmost, with efficiency and effectiveness. Johnathon Schaech (Poison Ivy II) as the brooding, prickly artist James Mattingly, Steve Zahn (Out of Sight, You've Got Mail) as goofy, free-spirited Lenny Haise, Ethan Embry (Vegas Vacation) as the quiet, reserved "Bass Player" (who never does get a real name!), and Tom Everett Scott (An American Werewolf in Paris) as drummer Guy Patterson all excel in their roles. Adding to their natural talents, their extended rehearsals as "The Wonders" prior to shooting not only made it easy to be convincing musicians, but it helped to create a chemistry for their collective acting. Liv Tyler (Armageddon, the Lord of the Rings trilogy) is not quite as tight a fit with her character, but only a segment of very serious dialogue near the end of That Thing You Do! drops awkwardly from her lips. Otherwise, she is as sweet and modest as Faye should be.
Tom Hanks, well, what can be said for a three-time nominee and two-time Best Actor Oscar winner? He graces Mr. White with subtle humor and friendly steel, a man who is likable even when he is strict and professional, a man of honor. That he can still present a solid performance while taking on roles behind the camera speaks to his true devotion and skill. The rest of the stellar cast is littered with familiar faces: Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Alex Rocco, Peter Scolari, Rita Wilson (AKA Mrs. Tom Hanks), Chris Isaak, Kevin Pollack, Clint Howard, Jonathan Demme. Fine actors all, even in their small (or sometimes tiny) roles.
The anamorphic video transfer is of high quality. Only a very occasional blip or fleck detracts from an otherwise clean print, with well saturated colors and solid blacks. Flesh tones are accurate, but sometimes were a tad washed-out. Sharpness tends to a softer tone and digital artifacts are kept tightly under control. Not quite up to a big-budget Hollywood action extravaganza standard, but not at all far from it.
The audio track rocks! With a widely varying collection of '60s inspired music, the soundtrack is a never-ending series of gems that fill the front soundstage with crisp, pleasing melodies. Dialogue is distinct and well mixed with the innumerable musical interludes. Though the rear surrounds are used only sparingly, primarily for crowd support, the subwoofer is nicely used to punch up the soundtrack with a satisfying thump.
Extra content includes the six theatrical trailers for That Thing You Do!, two each in English, Spanish and Italian, and six TV spots. The two music videos (for the Wonders' songs "That Thing You Do!" and "Dance With Me Tonight") are only in a less-pleasing, boomy sounding Dolby 2.0 and seem darker than the film itself. "The Making of That Thing You Do!" featurette is a brief thirteen minutes, but aside from the annoyance of Martha Quinn, includes a fair amount of behind the scenes shots and information from Tom Hanks on the film's creation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Tom Hanks does a triple-threat film, his theatrical debut as director and writer, and we don't get a commentary track? Considering his talents in front of and behind the camera, his evident charm and ability to be intelligently articulate, a commentary track (as it has been on other discs) by Tom Hanks would have been invaluable as information and even entertainment. A severe disappointment!
The only flaw in the disc relates to the first four of the six TV spots for That Thing You Do!. Either the audio was entirely missing, or more frequently it came out as a barrage of pops and cracks. I carefully cleaned the disc and still had the problem. A mastering defect perhaps?
A lot of people will draw comparisons between That Thing You Do! and The Commitments, Alan Parker's ode to rock & roll with an Irish Motown twist. That Thing You Do! may not have the character development, hard-luck charm, and gritty look of its Irish counterpart, but it shares a love of musicians and a healthy serving of toe-tapping sound. If you love The Commitments, you should at least like That Thing You Do!.
A family-friendly disc with a title song that may bounce around in your head for days, That Thing You Do! is a funny, groovy, bittersweet piece of class entertainment, appealing to a wide audience. Though extras are a bit light and Fox shoots a bit high on the price point ($23 retail), I enthusiastically recommend That Thing You Do! for rental and purchase.
That Thing You Do! is just too catchy for any human, including the Court, to resist. The defendants are released forthwith!
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