Audiences will either leave "That Thing You Do!" in love with the theme song or extremely annoyed by it. They'll definitely find the film much harder to shake than the song, though.
That's not say to "That Thing You Do!" which marks Tom Hanks' debut as both a director and writer is a perfect movie. Slow at times and having tendencies for both silliness and repetition (the song is played at least a half-dozen times throughout), the movie is pretty far from perfect.
However, it is also unapologetically sappy and romantic, old-time qualities that give it a charm lacking from most of today's overblown epics or mindless action flicks. The film definitely does its own thing and often does it well.
In "That Thing You Do!" Hanks follows fictional musicians the Wonders for the entire year of 1964, as the group goes from famine to feast to famine again. As it begins, drummer Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), a jazz music fan, is recruited to play with the band for a local talent competition. Vocalist Jimmy (Johnathan Schaech) is convinced his mopey song, "That Thing You Do!" is a real winner.
But to the delight of the fans at the competition/sock hop and to Jimmy's mortification, Guy picks up the beat, playing the song at a brisk, and more danceable, pop pace. Needless to say, the band wins the contest and is given a steady gig at a nearby pizzeria.
Because of overwhelming requests from its ever-increasing local fan base, the Wonders record a cheap single, featuring their "hit," which not only brings them some radio play, but also interest from Phil Horace (Giovanni Ribisi), a seedy-looking manager.
The band is skeptical of Phil's managerial skills at first, but he delivers on his promise to get the single played on larger radio stations. He also introduces them to Mr. White (Hanks), producer for Play-Tone Records, who signs them to the label and adds them to a state fair tour featuring all the Play-Tone acts.
It's clear, however, that "That Thing You Do!" is bigger than anything else the label is putting out, and the next thing you know, the Wonders are appearing on television shows and in movies. Of course, things eventually fall apart after arguments over future recordings, as well as Jimmy's relationship with Faye (Liv Tyler), his longtime girlfriend and the band's biggest supporter.
As far as debuts are concerned, Hanks certainly could have done a lot worse. Even though things develop predictably and some interesting characters are either dropped quickly or underdeveloped, the leads are so likable that you may not even notice.
In particular, Scott and Tyler have a good chemistry, while Schaech ("How to Make An American Quilt") is appropriately pretentious. Hanks and Steve Zahn ("Reality Bites"), playing Lenny, the Wonders' lead guitarist, provide some of the more humorous moments.
Speaking of humor, that's another of the film's saving graces. In addition to Zahn's inspired turn as the girlfriend-crazed musician, there are also a couple of funny bits involving the pronunciation of the band's name (it's spelled the Oneders before Mr. White changes it) and energy conservation.
Hanks, whose direction is adequately stylish, also has the taste to drop those jokes before they get old. If only the same were true of the theme song, which has the same tendency to irritate as "I'll Be There For You," the "Friends" TV show theme.
"That Thing You Do!" is rated PG for a few scattered profanities, as well as one mild vulgarity.