“It’s called That Thing You Do! It’s a comedy from 1996,” I say.
“Oh. So it’s really funny?”
“Yes. Well… I mean… I personally think so. It’s not really a punchline type comedy.”
“So it’s more, like, surreal? Physical comedy, like Jim Carrey?”
“No, not at all. It’s more… dry. Great script.”
“So it’s British?”
“No, it’s definitely American. It’s directed by Tom Hanks.”
“Wow, I didn’t know he directed a movie. What’s it about?”
“It’s about this rock band of wannabe Beatles who have this really good song they play over and over.”
“Huh. Sounds… interesting,” they say, walking away with a confused look on their face.
But whenever I watch the movie, any doubt or embarrassment melts away. It’s not the type of movie that wins Academy Awards or ends up on best-ever lists, but it’s a brilliant little gem, flawlessly assembled and infinitely charming and so much better than you would ever expect it to be. It’s perfectly in tune with me (and everyone in my family, who also adores it). It has the advantage of familiarity and vestigial affection so that it always puts me in a good mood.
The movie centers around Guy Patterson (played by Tom Everett Scott) as the fill-in drummer of a band from Erie, Pennsylvania when their main drummer gets hurt. (“Guys… Chad fell down.”)
Lead singer and songwriter Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech) has written a pretty song called “That Thing You Do,” and fancies himself an artist, while their lead guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) just wants to have a good time and get laid. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler) and the bass player (Ethan Embry) — who is never named for the entire movie — are along for the ride.
I’ll leave the plot at that because I really want anyone who hasn’t seen the movie and is reading this to go watch it. It’s not on Netflix or Hulu, but you can rent it for $3 on Amazon. (Alternately, you can come to my house, and we can have a movie night. Seriously, any evening. Just give me a half hour’s notice so I can go buy some beer.) If you do watch it, make sure you watch the theatrical cut (~108 mins) rather than the extended cut (~149 mins) — more on this later.
So, what about That Thing You Do makes it my favorite movie? Why do I hold it so dear to my heart?
So many reasons. I’ll try to list the biggest ones in the next few paragraphs.
The most overriding reason that this movie works is that everything has been constructed with passion and polish. Dissect any individual component of this movie and you’ll discover the consummate professionalism of Tom Hanks — this is clearly his passion project, and he makes sure every piece of it is great.
Let’s look at a few select pieces of craft in That Thing You Do:
It starts with the script. You can tell that Hanks pored over this script for years, spicing up dialog and ruthlessly trimming down the fat until this lean, funny, and breakneck script was left. (Hanks has the lone writing credit on the screenplay on top of the directing credit.) The story is tight and enjoyable, and the dialog is crisp.
Similarly, this might be the best-edited movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a master class: not flashy, but more impressive the closer you look. Every shot and scene feels essential and energetic. When the credits roll, you check your watch: Has it really been an hour and a half?
(A quick tangent: In 2007, Hanks released an Extended Edition of the movie. I’m so, so glad it exists. While some movies’ “director’s cuts” total a few more minutes of footage, this is a whopper in line with the passion that pervades the rest of the production. The new cut features 39 new minutes, including fully fleshed new subplots. While I adore it as a tremendous piece of fan service, I also encourage newbies to watch the original. The extended cut feels bloated in comparison, filling in story gaps that I never expected to be filled and never needed to be. It should be your second or third viewing — or, if you’re like me, your hundredth — not your first.)
That Thing You Do’s acting is superb. I already mentioned the core cast of the band, but the supporting cast is extremely solid. Hanks plays a sharp-witted record label manager, Charlize Theron shines as Guy’s pretty girlfriend, Chris Ellis is great as the band’s manager, and Holmes Osborne gets some of the best lines as Guy’s old-fashioned father. I could go on and on about the great lineup — Bill Cobbs as Del Paxton? Giovani Ribisi as the band’s original drummer Chad? — but suffice it to say that every bit of casting feels pitch perfect.
But the #1 reason I love this movie? The soul behind everything else that makes this movie tick?
That Thing You Do constructs an entire alternate world of 1960s music with wonderful facsimiles of great homages to a number of ‘60s styles. The soundtrack is fantastic on several levels. It’s simply enjoyable, with several catchy tunes. But it also is intriguingly eclectic, and also a sort of game — can you guess which artists and songs inspired each track on the soundtrack?
The title track, of course, is the highlight. It was written by Adam Schlesinger right around the time he was forming Fountains of Wayne. It’s a throwback, power pop gem that never gets old… which is good, because you hear it about a dozen times throughout the movie.
But I love the entire set of simulacra on the soundtrack. Spector girl groups, Pat Boone soft-pop, Bill Evans jazz, cheesy surf rock, and several more all have facsimiles in the That Thing You Do world, and the music created for them does a great job capturing the style and spirit of these genres.
But, even beyond the music, the central reason I love the movie and always want to watch it is that it radiates joy and life. The music is a major part of that, as are the performances, but there’s just a spirit about the proceedings that sucks you in. If this movie was a person, I’d want to be best friends with it.
I’ve avoided specifics and spoilers because I suspect there are a lot of people out there who have not seen this movie, and I want to encourage you to see it. But henceforth, I will indulge in spoilers and share some story- and character-specific thoughts.
If I was forced to cite a flaw in That Thing You Do, it would be that the movie is so intensely pleasant and gentle to its characters. There’s no real fallout from the band falling apart. It just happens and things end. If you were hoping for more drama, it’s not there.
But damn if it’s not a fun ride and a feel-good experience. There are too many great scenes to list them all, but my two absolute favorites will always be the talent show when Guy speeds up the tempo for the first time and the scene when the song first comes on the radio.
The inevitable pairing of Guy and Faye is handled quite well, I think. It gets just the right amount of foreshadowing: it doesn’t come out of left field, nor is it overdone. Jimmy is just selfish enough from the start that his meltdown is completely believable, yet it’s also easy to buy that he would land someone sweet and classy like Faye.
A little bit more on the cast: It’s really hard to find a weak link here. Everyone seems perfectly fit for the role they’re cast in. Hanks is obviously a standout, and since this is my favorite Hanks movie, this is the “default” Hanks personality in my mind — clever, a bit cynical, professional, but quite charming.
Another thing about TTYD that I love is how much affection and care the movie has for its settings. From the small town of Erie where the Oneders begin their rise, through the mid-size state fairs, through the big time show in Hollywood, Hanks fills the world with colorful characters and attention to detail.
It all just adds up to a movie that I always want to watch and appreciate more each time I see it. Hanks’ tremendous job as a rookie director, the spirited soundtrack, and the brisk pace of the film are key pieces, but That Thing You Do! is ultimately something joyful and passionate that is more than the sum of its products.