Wednesday, May 16, 2007

That Thing He Did

I haven't written about it before, but I believe that Tom Hanks' THAT THING YOU DO! is one of the best American films to emerge in the last decade or so, and arguably the most impressive American directorial debut since Preston Sturges accepted the princely sum of one buck to direct his original screenplay THE GREAT McGINTY in 1940.
I've seen it countless times -- it's one of those films I can't click away from when I'm channel surfing -- and never grow tired of it; there is always something new to discover in it, endless character arcs to follow through its immensely rich weave. It's a small film in some ways; there are no real stars aside from Hanks himself, an as-yet-unfamous Charlize Theron, and a brief bit by Warren Berlinger -- yet it's teeming with character, incident, in-jokes, historic references, and other such grace notes. The original songs are endlessly listenable and appealing; when I hear them, I know immediately which artists and songs they were meant to reference, but I'm so deeply impressed by their craftsmanship, on the levels of songwriting and performance, that I concede to them a complete suspension of disbelief. These songs would have been hits in the day, had they been recorded then.
Furthermore, the film and its cast of characters is a virtual pop-up trivia test of the viewer's pop history savvy; catching all the references isn't essential to one's enjoyment of the picture, but to recognize how well they have been assimilated into this imaginary tale adds immeasurably to one's respect for its achievement. (I wouldn't half-mind writing an "Annotated THAT THING YOU DO!" if there was an audience for it.) I think it is the most completely imagined rock-'n-roll fantasy ever filmed -- the story of the rise-and-fall of The Oneders (pronounced "Wonders," not "oh-needers"), a fictional Erie, PA garage band whose one-and-only single reached the BILLBOARD #7 slot in 1964. In telling this story with such empathy and humor, it also succeeds in telling a representative story that is actually commonplace, so commonplace as to have spawned the phrase "One Hit Wonders."
Because I love this movie so much, it was with some trepidation that I awaited 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's release of a two-disc "Tom Hanks Extended Cut" of THAT THING YOU DO!, which streeted last week. Expecting maybe 8 additional minutes at most, I was startled to learn that it had actually been lengthened by 40 minutes, which made its odds for success seem even more precipitous. You have to understand: I believe the original theatrical cut is as close to air-tight as any picture I've ever seen -- the cutting rhythms are actually vibrant, ideally complementary to the bright colors of the songs and Tak Fujimoto's cinematography. On the other hand, I can't think of another film of such recent vintage that revels so evidently and so well in its love for actors (everyone onscreen seems to have his or her own discernible backstory), so this is the extended cut's potential ace-in-the-hole: more time in which to explore the nooks and crannies of its sprawling canvas.
I wouldn't have believed it possible, but in most ways, the new extended cut actually improves upon a film I consider perfect. The additional scenes do indeed lend depth and detail to what was already there, and they also lay the groundwork toward a more lucid understanding of various relationships within the story. Group leader-songwriter Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech) is more of a prick earlier on, ignoring his girlfriend Fay (Liv Tyler) yet always quick to label her as his property whenever anyone else pays her any mind. We also see earlier signs of rapport between Fay and Guy (Tom Everett Scott), which makes the eventual turn of their relationship seem as grounded as it is serendipitous. There are also hilarious revelations about the touching relationship between The Bass Player (Ethan Embry) and a member of the Chantrellines, and the private life of band agent Mr. White (Hanks) -- both of which come as welcome disclosures dramatically and comedically, while also touching on their apparent basis in the personal lives of Supremes singer Mary Wilson and Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Obba Babatundé, who brings a wealth of personality to a role that would likely be negligeable if guided by another director, has an especially good added moment opposite Liv Tyler.
What is startling, though, about the extended cut is that -- just before the end -- it not only augments what we know about these beloved characters, but actually rewrites the fate of the lead character. In the theatrical cut, Guy leaves a magical unexpected studio jam session with his jazz hero Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs) advised that he has what it takes to make it as a session drummer on the west coast. Here, a dazzled phone call to the only other person who might understand his dream day -- a jazz disc jockey played by Clint Howard -- results in a job opportunity of a different kind. I don't know what precipitated this change in Hanks' mind (did he decide that Guy really didn't have the chops to make it in LA?), but he clearly provided for it during the shooting. From my perspective as a fan, as well as a critic, as interesting as this alternative direction for the character may be, it has the feel of a misjudgment, whether it is or not; it's the only moment that isn't kindly and generously accomodating to one's familiarity with the picture. Up to this point, having an alternative version of the film is a unalloyed treat, but after this left-field switcheroo, our choice of which version we might want to watch in the future (and the disc gives us both) is going to rest on how we want things to work out for Guy. I may grow to love it, but at first sight, I'm uneasy with it. I love these characters, I believe in them, and I don't like to think of their fates as flexible. It's tempting to think that Hanks deliberately built... not a flaw exactly, but a point of contention into this longer cut so that the original version could continue to hold its own ground. If I didn't know the other version so well, there would be no problem.
There's a second disc of extras, but one hesitates to call it "a whole disc of extras," as they constitute well under two hours. (They also are assembled on the menu in a manner that doesn't strike me as chronological, so if we simply click down the queue, we get a jumble. A more orderly "Play All" option would have been preferable.) Included are documentation of The Wonders' promotional visit to Japan, interviews pertaining to the film's casting and production history, an HBO "First Look" special hosted by Martha Quinn, and a fun reunion of cast members Schaech, Theron, Scott and Embry, with inserted comments from the movie's MVP, Steve Zahn (Lenny). It's all very gratifying, yet there's not enough of it to be fully satisfying -- especially because the featurettes include fun shots, lines, and bits still not included in either the theatrical version or the extended cut. (One of these, a cutaway from the "Hollywood Television Showcase," has Guy's father -- Holmes Osborne, another great, nuanced performance -- describing a recent movie starring the show's host Troy Chesterfield [Hanks' BOSOM BUDDIES co-star Peter Solari]: two guys disguise themselves to live in an all-girls apartment complex.) These prepare us for a "Deleted Scenes" option, but one isn't included. Nor is an audio commentary or any recent input from Hanks himself. These might have helped to fill in the punchlines teasingly withheld from a couple of insiderly jokes in the movie (for example, what happened that was so funny when Lenny stayed up after midnight?), and also told the story behind a featured music video called "Feelin' Alright" (not heard in the film or on the soundtrack), accompanied by a montage of shots from the movie, credited to Josh Clayton-Felt in a memorial gesture that's now seven or eight years old (1967-2000).
I have the greatest respect for Tom Hanks as an actor and producer, but despite FORREST GUMP, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, I sincerely feel that he's done his best work to date as a director. I wish he was more prolific in this area, but you can't argue with his track record.
He's directed two perfect features since 1996 -- and they're both called THAT THING YOU DO!.
PS: Thanks to Terry Thome for writing with a couple of corrections and observations. He also adds: "It would have been nice to finally recognise Mike Viola as the 'ghost' vocalist for Jimmy Mattingly III's performances. He's one of the great unknown POP vocalists of our time and THAT THING YOU DO! led me to be a good friend of his. Check out his Bio from 1999 that I uploaded to Youtube. It's a hoot. Please watch, as there's a piece of THAT THING YOU DO! in it. Check out for his records, too!"

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