Tom Hanks always preferred the Beatles to the Rolling Stones. "The Stones, to me, were always the bad boys," he said recently. "I could never trust their motivations." That should tell you where we're at with That Thing You Do!, a brightly entertaining blend of humor and heartbreak about four fresh-faced guys in a band from Erie, Pa., who become one-hit wonders in 1964. Little Tommy Hanks from Concord, Calif., was 8 years old that year – post-JFK assassination but before Vietnam, Watergate, AIDS, uncurbed advertising and the other plagues he encountered in Forrest Gump. There was still a wisp of rock innocence then, and Hanks chooses to celebrate it in his first movie as a writer and director.
Actors are gravitating to directing in hordes these days. For starters, there's Al Pacino's Looking for Richard, Kevin Spacey's Albino Alligator, Matthew Broderick's Infinity and Anjelica Huston's Bastard Out of Carolina. But for every first success, say, Robert Redford's Ordinary People, there are dozens of one-shots who either bury themselves after a smash debut (Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves) or get buried by critics and audiences (Eddie Murphy's Harlem Nights). Hanks works like a sketch artist feeling his way before attempting a large canvas. His material is slight, but his writing and directing have an unforced humor and an unhurried grace that suggest he may be a natural.
That Thing You Do! follows the band, called the Wonders, from small-town dives to records, radio, state fairs, TV spots and Hollywood. There's an undertone of regret, in case you fear Happy Days, and a magnetic young cast to chart the band's collision course with success. Tom Everett Scott, of TV's Grace Under Fire, plays Guy Patterson, the drummer. Scott walks, talks and looks enough like the boyish Hanks to be a clone from Big. Guy is funny, charming, a little geeky and about to be dumped by fickle bombshell Tina (Charlize Theron, a newcomer with sizzle and sly comic flair).
The band includes Steve Zahn (Reality Bites) on guitar and Ethan Embry (White Squall) on bass. But the conflict shapes up between Guy and Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), the band's singer/songwriter with a driving ambition and the dreamy looks that Guy lacks and the loyal love, Faye (Liv Tyler at her most appealing), that Guy wishes could be his.
Schaech, as he proved in The Doom Generation, has the kind of dangerous sexuality that spells "budding star." But Hanks stacks the cards against him. He's the bad boy, the Stone to Scott's bubbly Beatle. Jimmy cheats on poor Faye, hogs the spotlight and yearns to go solo.
The only character with a more negative vibe than Jimmy's is Mr. White, a manager with Playtone Records, the label that exploits the Wonders. Hanks plays this suit in dark shades (to hide his dead eyes) with insidious skill. Instead of getting the Wonders back in the studio, he tours them to milk their hit, "That Thing You Do." The song, with its soft-rock hook, is first done with fresh vigor, then overproduced until it's as soulless as vinyl.
The Wonders are being tested to keep their faith in an industry intent on crushing it. Wisely, Hanks lets that point sneak up on you. He doesn't discount the band's first-time highs – hearing its song on the radio is a burst of joy staged with warm humor by Hanks and lifted by the deft camera work of Tak Fujimoto. But there is a snake in the garden.
White's is a supporting role but a crucial one. Bereft of passion, he's as cold as a ledger, and a scary enough symbol of the future to split the band. The smirk White flashes at Faye when he puts her on the payroll for sleeping with Jimmy is as close as this movie comes to obscene.
Tyler, the hot star of Stealing Beauty, bides her time at first. She's with the band. Then you realize Hanks is using her growing disillusionment to show what compromise is doing to the guys. Her touching radiance comes through in her final scene, done in riveting close-up. "I wasted thousands and thousands of kisses on you," she tells Jimmy, before walking out.
The sweetness in that moment reflects the best in Hanks and his movie. You forgive That Thing You Do! for cuteness and pat resolutions because Hanks stakes so much of himself in the days before rock stained its mission with greed. Telling detail and generous spirit are hardly signs of a one-shot wonder. Say this for Hanks: You can trust his motivations.