by Rob DiCristino
How ballsy do you have to be to bet your entire movie on a song? I mean, there’s no accounting for taste, and how do you know — I mean, KNOW — that a song is going to be ear-wormy enough to satiate a rowdy audience for 108 minutes? You’ve gotta be Tom Hanks ballsy, that’s how ballsy you have to be. America’s Dad knew what the hell he was doing when he dreamed up That Thing You Do!, his 1996 love letter to Beatlemania, the rags-to-riches archetype, and Steve Zahn’s goofy grin. It’s the rare Perfect Movie, a complex, alchemical cocktail of charm and genius that reminds us just how joyous this hellish trash fire of a world can be if we’re looking at it through the right set of eyes. It was one of the first movies that was ever mine, a movie I grew to love without prompting or persuasion, without parental influence or probable cause. Anyone remember VH1’s Movies That Rock? VH1 was this network for old people that was owned by the MTV company but not technically MTV, you know? Anyway, they showed this movie every goddamn week, and after two or three viewings, I was in love.
So what makes a Perfect Movie? A tight screenplay, for one thing. Notice how Hanks repeats patterns in That Thing You Do!’s second act: “You boys look good in red/gold.” “You have your pick?”/”You straight on those harmonies, now?” Also, you notice how your brain tricks you into thinking you hear “That Thing You Do!” a thousand times? You hear it fewer than three times, actually. But the magic is that you hear a different version on every go: The slow, melodic one in Jimmy’s garage. Then the shaky, uptempo one at the talent show. Finally, the polished version at the nationally-televised variety show. The other times are just glimpses and pieces. The gist of it. You know what else makes a Perfect Movie? The characters. The performative moments between important plot points. Lenny (Zahn) and his presidential flashcards. Faye (Liv Tyler) and her thousands of kisses. Jimmy (Schaech) and his principles. “Hey Guy, weren’t you the drummer in The Echos?” What about the Patterson family’s hopeless crusade against Telemart? You don’t NEED to put these things in a movie, but they always, always make it better. Homier. Comfier. They make it last forever.
Say Anything…, High Fidelity, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park, I grew up with That Thing You Do! We grew up together, really. Unlike me, though, That Thing You Do! hasn’t aged a day. It’s gorgeous and singular. It’s hopeful and learned. It teaches us without resenting us for our innocence and presumptuousness. “It’s a very common tale,” says Mr. White (Hanks). “One hit Wonders.” Practiced and staid though he may be, Mr. White is one of the good guys. He joined Play-Tone because he believes in the artist. He believes in the music. He’s a champion. I’d love to meet him. I believe, too.