With That Thing You Do!, Hanks acknowledged that institutions can have hard edges
Though it was in fact an enormously complex undertaking to bring to the screen, Hanks’s participation in the Toy Story saga, while prominent, was relatively minor in terms of his involvement. That Thing You Do! (1996), by contrast, was his most demanding undertaking to date: a film he wrote, produced and directed, in addition to contributing some supporting acting. The story of the rise and fall of a one-hit wonder rock band in the 1960s, the film is a small masterpiece – a perfectly pitched paean to the golden age of pop music, complete with a catchy title tune that you can’t get out of your head. The film also featured some up-and-coming talent, including Charlize Theron, Liv Tyler, Giovanni Ribisi and Steve Hahn, all whom would to on to greater prominence. While one should always take the promotional materials for movies with a grain of salt, the seemingly genuine affection a good chunk of the cast expressed for this production in general and Hanks in particular at a ten-year reunion gathering suggests a deft managerial hand.
That Thing You Do is also a compelling document in Hanks’s evolving vision of the way organizations shape history, in this case cultural history, and a growing sense of the ambiguities involved. The movie tells the stories of the Wonders, four young men from Erie, Pennsylvania, who join forces in a somewhat improvised fashion when Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) agrees to sub for a drummer who has broken his arm (Ribisi). The Wonders are led by Jimmy Mattingly (Jonathan Schaech), a talented, driven, and callous songwriter who neglects his girlfriend Faye (Tyler). Mattingly’s song “That Thing You Do” generates some spontaneous attention, eventually attracting that of the somewhat mysterious “Mr. White” (Hanks), who signs the band to his label, Playtone Records.
Hanks plays Mr. White with an inscrutable, and just possibly, malevolent, air. He’s eagle-eyed, something the band members and don’t seem to notice when he engages them in not-quite casual conversation. They members follow his commands largely without question, though Jimmy becomes increasingly anxious and insistent that the band go in the studio, while the evocatively named White blandly informs them they will continue their tour and milk “That Thing You Do” for all it’s worth. Which, as it turns out, is a lot. The song rides up the charts, culminating with the band’s appearance on an Ed Sullivan-type variety show and a stint at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Most of the band members consider the whole experience a lark, Guy included, though we in the audience and White suspect he has more substance, as indicated by his love of jazz (there’s a great scene of him at a club, immune to the charms of a sultry waitress played by Rita Wilson).
It’s Jimmy who destroys their idyll. Angry about a caption that he is engaged, he turns on Faye, who has accompanied the band as road manager, at the very moment of their TV triumph. (Guy, by contrast, showed had earlier showed his concern about her missing the show, but is informed by that he has made provisions for her couture and a limo.) Shortly thereafter, Jimmy precipitates a confrontation at the studio with White. White now reveals his power over the band by invoking their contract, which allows him to dictate the content of their album, which will focus on covers of songs from the Playtone catalog. Jimmy quits on the spot, effectively breaking up the band. The group thus founders before it can ever really take flight, ruined by its leader’s egotism. White shrugs this off: He’s seen it all before, and there will always be another Wonders. The ability to extract profit, however, lasts forever. Still, the gimlet-eyed manager does dispense a final piece of good advice to Guy: go and get the girl. He does, and, we’re informed as the credits roll, he has a nice life. Jimmy, for his part, becomes a staff writer for Playtone Records. Life goes on, business as usual.