Before he became a national monument you know, when he was just an actor Tom Hanks had two sides. Snappy and clean-cut, a straight shooter in a world of poseurs, he projected that magical American quality of likability. And yet, like the stars to whom he's most often compared, James Stewart and Henry Fonda, he was never so ''good'' that he seemed trapped in wholesomeness. His skewering wit, which flirted with the caustic, redeemed him from virtue.
It's my pleasure to report that both sides of Hanks are on ebullient display in That Thing You Do!, a lovingly crafted pop fable that marks his debut as a writer-director. In the summer of 1964, the Wonders, a four-man rock group who've been playing high school dances, emerge from the anonymity of Erie, Pa., on the strength of their jangly Beatlesque hit single, ''That Thing You Do!'' They're signed by a slickster from Play-Tone Records (played by Hanks), who dresses them in matching suits, comes up with a personality gimmick sunglasses! and packs them off on a variety-show tour with a dozen other Play-Tone artists. In a matter of weeks, the Wonders are a household name, with a recording contract, a television appearance, and a future that looks more dazzling every minute. They're living an instant-jackpot version of the American dream, and the film invites us to revel in the excitement of a time when pop itself was taking over the universe.
Yet even as That Thing You Do! cruises on the surreal high spirits of overnight fame, there's another, richer layer to the story. The Wonders become sensations not because they're geniuses, but because they've written one spunky tune that catches the mood of American teenagers. What's more, for the first time there exists a vast corporate machinery record companies, radio stations, TV networks, all linked in a burgeoning public-relations juggernaut to market the group and its music. The machine is both their triumph and their downfall. For the Wonders aren't really stars (they're just the cogs of the moment), and the fact that they don't realize it lends a sly irony to everything we're seeing. That Thing You Do! is neither overly sentimental nor overly cynical. It looks at the invention of our pop-rock mythology, and the bands that fed it until they were consumed by it, just as you'd expect Tom Hanks to: with open eyes (and a raised eyebrow).
Like Diner and American Graffiti, the film gets deep inside the stodgy wonder and anxiety of the space age, that limbo era when the '50s had ended and no one quite knew what was coming next. It's a truly buttoned-down time; even the kids trying to act ''cool'' sound strangely polite. Tall and curly-haired, with a rock-steady gaze that takes in more than it lets out, Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) works in his father's appliance store, hawking such novel gadgets as washing machines and clock radios. A drummer, Guy isn't all that interested in rock & roll; he covets the more supple rhythms of jazz. But when the Wonders' regular drummer breaks his arm, Guy agrees to sit in for a gig. During the first number, ''That Thing You Do!,'' he jacks up the rhythm just to keep himself entertained, turning the earnest love song into an upbeat rocker. It's a great scene: The other members think he's nuts, but as the kids on the dance floor start to move, we realize that Guy, like a spark plug, is jump-starting a new era.
This may be the first rise-of-a-pop-phenomenon movie since Taylor Hackford's The Idolmaker (1980) that's less interested in the rockers themselves than in the meticulous process by which they're transformed into stars. The film coasts along on the wry authenticity of its satirical details, whether it's the Wonders' initial fling at a ''creative'' name (the destined-to-be- mispronounced ''Oneders''), the majestically silly beach-party movie they get stuck in, or the song ''That Thing You Do!,'' which, as played over and over, generates just the right mixture of catchiness and annoyance to let us know the Wonders aren't destined for immortality.
As Guy, newcomer Scott, with his foxy smirk, doesn't just resemble a younger Hanks; he has a self-mocking effrontery that evokes Hanks at his most boyish. The backstage melodrama may not be profound, but Hanks stages it with conviction and zest, suavely understating the tensions between Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), the Wonders' moody songwriter-leader; Faye (Liv Tyler), his trusting girlfriend; and Guy, the white-bread hipster who's a little too wide-eyed for his own good. As Mr. White, the record company Svengali who becomes the Wonders' Brian Epstein, Hanks creates a character so up-front about his own opportunism you can't help but like him. When he orders Jimmy to write a follow-up single that's ''snappy,'' the film's entire wised-up vision of the pop-music business is there in the way he bites off that word. Perhaps the most poignant performance is that of Liv Tyler, playing a girl so pre-counterculture nice she doesn't even realize she's as sexy as...Liv Tyler. That Thing You Do! is an enticing snapshot of the last moment in American life when innocence could still look like grace. A-