I'm going through a bit of a Tom Hanks season at the moment. In the past few days I've worked my way through Bachelor Party (endearing but idiotic), The Man With One Red Shoe (in no one way engaging), Big (something of a missed opportunity I think), Philadelphia (harrowing, sublime performance), Forrest Gump (possibly overrated, and based on a character its hard to emphasize with), and this, That Thing You Do!, not only Hanks' best film to that point, but also his debut as a writer AND director. Watching it only makes me wish he'd make more projects of his own, so filled to bursting is it with character nuance, throwaway zingers and crucially, a controlled, believable plot.
I'm sure you know the story; if not, allow me. Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott, sporting the very same hairdo Hanks did in all of the above movies bar Gump) is drafted by the One-ders (pronounced as Oh-nee-ders by the marvelous Steve Zahn and just about everyone else) after their drummer breaks his arm actin' the lig. Much to Jimmy's (where-are-they-now candidate Johnathon Schaech) dismay he plays the band's one song much too fast come Talent Show night, and wouldn't you know, it becomes a hit. What follows is a brief brush with fame for the four members (plus an adorable Liv Tyler as Jimmy's put-upon girlfriend) before internal conflict tears things apart. Along the way Tom Hanks becomes their manager and changes their name to The Wonders. "That Thing You Do" proves to be their one hit.
It's an interesting plot but it's the way in which it's handled that makes the picture such a joy. Hanks' script is uncluttered, concise and at times absolutely hilarious. Much of the latter hilarity is delivered by Zahn, in my mind the major comedy star that never was. If any one actor stands out in this superb young cast, it's him. His every line is a joy. Regarding Hanks as a director, it should come as a shock that this is ostensibly a debut feature. It's a Oneder he hasn't directed any movies since.
I don't think I can do this film justice with any amount of praise. In the simplest terms, I admire how Hanks keeps things simple- the band's fame is brief, and their downfall believable, inevitable even. From the earliest scenes it's clear these four young men are headed in different directions, but drug and violence cliches are avoided. He treats his characters with a subtle warmth- witness Guy meeting his idol in a small jazz club, or Tyler's heartbreaking breakup speech- as well as imbuing his own performance with a mature sensibility that at the time was a fresh approach for him.
That Thing You Do is buying That Thing You Do! post-haste.