What do you think of when you hear “Tom Hanks”? The American everyman or the Antichrist’s emissary? Affable pal or appalling performer? Ready for coronation or ripe for condemnation? To coincide with Hanks’s latest film premiering this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writer Sam Watermeier and contributor Dave Gutierrez will offer conflicting viewpoints on the iconic (or is it irritating?) actor every week. On Tuesdays, Dave will say Hanks for Nothing, Tom! On Wednesdays, Sam will say Hanks for Everything, Tom! At month’s end, they’ll face each other in what we’re calling the Gump-Off. To paraphrase Forrest: This series is like a box of chocolates. Some of them are dosed with poison.
You doing OK, buddy? I ask because I just finished revisiting Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, which you once told me reinforced your Hanks hate. I’m inquiring about your mental state because I think you may have mistaken this film for something else. What I just watched was the cinematic equivalent of a picnic under a rainbow. Do you have an allergy to light? Does the bright, blue summer sky pierce your eyeballs?
Establishing Hanks as a triple threat, his dive into writing, directing and co-starring arrived in 1996, right on the heels of his starring roles in 1994’s Best Picture winner Forrest Gump — for which he won his second consecutive Best Actor Oscar — and 1995’s Apollo 13, which was nominated for nine Academy Awards. What a hack.
I’m not sure when you last watched his directorial delight, so I’ll refresh your memory. The film follows a Pennsylvania-based band that parallels the Beatles. Like the British sensation, the band boasts a purposefully misspelled name (the Oneders), and one of its ballads becomes a smash hit after it’s sped up into a snappier tune. (A faster version of “Please Please Me” did the same for the Beatles.)
Last-minute drummer replacement Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) turns the band’s sleepy ballad, “That Thing You Do!,” into an instant classic when he peps it up for a local Battle of the Bands competition. After the crowd goes wild, and right before the band wins the top prize, the moody lead singer, Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), mutters, “That was way too fast, man.”
Jimmy soon finds himself eating his words when local gigs give way to radio play. The scene in which the band hears its song on the radio for the first time is pure magic. It starts with Jimmy’s girlfriend, Faye (Liv Tyler), screaming at the top of her lungs and sprinting down the street. She bumps into the bass player (Ethan Embry) and together, they run to the appliance store where Guy works. As he blasts all the radios in the place, Jimmy and lead guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) drop by, buzzing with excitement. Here, you can imagine Hanks experiencing the same exhilaration over his own debut.
Such an asshole, right? How dare he still view success with childlike wonder? He should be bitter and jaded. Give me a break, Dave.
Uh-oh. Here’s where big, bad Hanks graces the screen as Mr. Amos White, a representative for Playtone Records who goes on to serve as the band’s manager, taking them on the road under their new name, the Wonders. Now, I’ll give you this, Dave: The film meanders a bit here. It’s essentially a sustained montage of performances. However, you have to admit that Hanks takes an admirable risk in hinging the film on a song viewers have to hear over and over again. He wisely selected the late, great Adam Schlesinger’s tune, which the musical virtuoso wrote and submitted on the eve of his first albums with Fountains of Wayne and Ivy.
The song climbed the Billboard charts as quickly in real life as it does in the film. It also went on to score a Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.
Hanks really blew it with that choice, didn’t he?
On the surface, there isn’t much meat on the film’s bones. It’s more of a breezy hangout movie. I can see why you wouldn’t want to hang out with Hanks, but watching the wide-eyed band members soak in their success is a joy.
“How did we get here?” Zahn’s character utters in disbelief. I’d say that’s a pretty sincere moment from a filmmaker you describe as “smarmy.”
Hanks proves to be an actor’s director, letting the supporting players do a lot with a little. Zahn brings fun flourishes to the simplest lines, stealing every scene. With a bashful smile and puppy-dog eyes, Embry grows incredibly endearing as the humble, bumbling bass player. (Fun fact: He’s listed in the credits as “The Bass Player.”)
You probably hate Scott given how much he resembles a young Hanks. Whatever. I’d say it’s bold of him and Hanks to make the character such a giddy goober. The only band member who keeps his cool amid the craze is Jimmy, and he turns out to be a total dick for it. He dumps Faye and his friends because of his obsession with the possibilities of the future and a lack of appreciation for the gifts of the present. Therefore, the movie stands as a testament to humility and gratitude. It’s a gentle cautionary tale about how you should embrace the moment because it could amount to a mere 15 minutes of fame. Of course, Hanks has had more than his fair share of time in the spotlight. But through the starry-eyed characters in this film, he shows he cherishes that precious time.
You’re a bit older than me, so you brought more emotional baggage to this film when it came out. I was 5 years old at the time and still recall seeing this in the theater with my parents and brother. The characters’ wholesome sense of enchantment rubbed off on me, and I left the movie with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. I recently revisited it with my brother, and it was just as warm and comforting, especially in the midst of the chaos spreading across the country.
I know hating Hanks is just that thing you do, but surely he’s preferable to the lizard-brained monster invading our various screens every day.
What’s so bad about Hanks? He likes old music, smiles a lot and tells dad jokes?
Come on, Dave. Pull your head out of your pooper. I’m just trying to help you see the light, man.
Until next time …