Been a few weeks since I sat down and did a Fishing in the Discount Bin. I recently, finally signed up for Netflix, so rather than pop a Blu-Ray in the player, I've been seeing what I can find streaming online. (Hence my new series of blogs, Netflix Nonsense.) But I recently went into the city, where I was poking around in a discount bin (hence the name of this column) and I spied a couple of Blu-Rays I'd been eyeing for a while. The first one that I'm watching, That Thing You Do!
I once explained to a friend of mine that there's this thing in Hollywood. When you reach a certain level of stardom, you're given a blank cheque to do pretty much whatever you want. Tom Hanks reached that level in the mid-1990s, and he spent his blank cheque writing and directing his first film: a fun, bouncy comedy charting the rise and fall of a one-hit wonder in the summer of 1964. I'd been thinking about picking it up on DVD for a while. I figured it'd always make a fun double-feature with A League of Their Own, the common thread being they're both my sister's favourite movies. Back during Christmas shopping, I remember spying it on Blu-Ray and thinking, "Ooo. When did they release this on Blu-Ray?" And this past weekend I finally had the $10 to pluck it out of the discount bin.
I should mention that there are two versions of the film. There's the original theatrical version, and then for DVD, they put together the "Tom Hanks' Extended Edition." Both versions are on the Blu-Ray, and I watched the original theatrical version. I'm not sure exactly how much involvement Hanks had in putting together the "Tom Hanks' Extended Edition," as with some of these extended editions all they really do is go back and stick in a few deleted scenes that tested really well. The fact that Hanks isn't involved with any of the Blu-Ray bonus features does cause on to raise an eyebrow. Anyway, it's a full hour longer, and I wasn't in the mood for longer today. Just the original for me.
So. It's 1964, in the town of Erie, Pennsylvania. Our hero is Guy, played by Tom Everet Scott. Described early on as "the town's only beatnik," he's working in the family business -- an appliance store -- as a salesman. But his true passion is jazz music, as when the store closes, he goes into the basement, cranks up his jazz records, and plays along on his drum kit. But then, fate intervenes. A group of acquaintances of his have a band, with a big talent show coming up. When their drummer breaks his arm while horsing around, they ask Guy to fill in on the drums. Excited to play in front of an audience again, Guy says yes.
Rehearsing in a garage, we meet the rest of the band. There's Jimmy, the moody artist type and lead singer/guitarist. There's Lenny, rhythm guitarist and the jokester of the group. We've got the shy and silent bass player. This has always been a fun little quirk of the film. Because of how shy and silent he is, we never learn the bass player's name. All the other characters, and even the end credits, refer to him as just "The Bass Player." And rounding out the band is Faye, played by Liv Tyler just as she was becoming a star. Faye is Jimmy's girlfriend, and she's always hanging out with them and showering praise on her moody artist boyfriend. And in fact, she even gives the band their name. After rehearsal, Guy declares the band "wonderful," to which Faye proposes the name "The Oneders." You know, 1-ders. But a running gag quickly becomes how everyone mispronounces it "The o-NEED-ers."
At the talent show, between an adrenaline rush of performing for an audience again and a burst of inspiration, Guy speeds up the tempo on Jimmy's ballad "That Thing You Do!" As a fast song, they destroy the competition in the talent show and get a paying gig performing in a local pizza place. With "That Thing You Do!" taking the town by storm, they soon scrape together enough money to record the song and start selling it as a 45.
We've got to take a moment to talk about the song itself, "That Thing You Do!" No doubt part of what makes the film so fun is that song. It's such a fun, bouncy song. It's catchy as hell. But here's the thing. Because of the nature of the film, you wind up hearing that song constantly. And you never get sick of it. I still wish it won the Best Original Song Oscar for 1996. What did it lose to, again? Help me out, Wikipedia. "You Must Love Me" from Evita. Yeah, people are still singing that one at karaoke.
Anyways, the popularity of the song soon lands them a manager, who starts booking them some bigger gigs. And then, about an hour into the film, we're finally introduced to Tom Hanks's character. Hanks plays Mr. White, a record company exec who offers them a contract with Playtone Records to take "That Thing You Do!" nationwide. The Oneders (re-named The Wonders by Mr. White to stop the confusion) join the Playtone Galaxy of Stars, and Mr. White becomes their new manager. He starts grooming the band into something more marketable and not just a garage band who got lucky. He dresses them in matching suits. He gives Guy a pair of sunglasses to differentiate him and re-christens him "Shades." And so Faye can still hang out with them and join them on tour, Mr. White creates the position of "costume mistress" for her.
Tom Hanks as Mr. White. I could never quite put my finger on it, but something about the character always struck me as having a...somewhat sinister undertone. Don't get me wrong, he looks after these kids, he helps them out on their career, and because Hanks plays him, that trademark Hanks charm is in full swing. But something about him just always struck me as a guy you do NOT want to cross.
With the meteoric rise of the Wonders -- the last time we hear the chart position on "That Thing You Do!" it's peaked at #7 -- the band soon ditches their tour as they're invited out to L.A. to appear on national television and start work on their next album. And in LA. the cracks start to show in the band. Lenny, the jokester, soon runs off to Vegas with a secretary. The Bass Player, who's already enlisted in the Marines, runs off with a group of Marines to see the sights. Guy is soon enthralled at meeting his hero, jazz musician Del Paxton. And Jimmy, the moody artist, soon gets moodier as the success starts going to his head, and he gets frustrated that he can't record more of the stuff that he writes. And when, in their TV performance, it's implied that Jimmy has proposed to Faye. Rather than be classy and laugh it off, or use it to profess his undying love, Jimmy, in fact loses his shit and blows up at Faye, leading to Faye dumping him.
When Faye dumps Jimmy, I still maintain that "I've wasted thousands of kisses on you" stands as the most...poetic kiss off in movie history. In fact, let me just take a minute to heap some praise on Liv Tyler. Usually, I'm unimpressed with her acting, as she seems half-asleep in most of her roles. But she's actually pretty good here, as she fawns over Jimmy and acts genuinely in love, and is pretty heartbroken when she finally accepts that the moody artist only cares for his art.
The band winds up going their separate ways, and Guy and Faye finally accept that fate has been pushing them together all throughout this adventure. The end does strike me as a little hollow, because something about how this scene plays out is...meh. The dialogue gets cheezy and the acting is a little stiff, but it works.
And there's other bits I enjoy about the film. I like the character of Lamarr, who's the concierge at the hotel in L.A. where the Wonders are staying. When he says he takes care of his guests, he means it, always nudging our heroes in the right direction. I've always likened him as Mr. White without the sinister undertone. And there's Tina, Guy's girlfriend, who quickly drifts away from Guy and starts boinking her dentist because she doesn't want to play the supportive girlfriend like Faye. Fun trivia fact: Tina is played by Charlize Theron in her very first film.
I should take a moment to talk about the soundtrack album. I bought the soundtrack album for my sister, and borrowed it quite a bit. The soundtrack album was unique because the liner notes were this wonderful piece of universe-expanding fiction. Presenting the album as a long lost treasury of Playtone hits, with a focus on the Wonders, it's just full of little stories giving the backgrounds of all the fictitious bands in the film, and also expanding on the film's coda, going into greater detail what happened to the main characters after the film. And the notes are credited to Mr. White.
Not much left to say. I remember watching an interview with Tom Hanks in which he admitted it would have been a better film if he weren't so busy geeking out about the experience of writing and directing a film. But you did pretty good, Mr. Hanks. You did pretty good.