Hanks does his thing

Oscar-winning actor makes impressive directorial debut

The Cincinnati Enquirer

I love Tom Hanks for the same reasons most of America does: He's funny and he's smart.

As writer, director, co-star and sometimes songwriter of That Thing You Do!, Mr. Hanks is funny enough, but he is smart right down to his bones.

The evidence is up on the screen. It takes brains to make a movie as simple as That Thing You Do! look, sound and feel so good. In many ways, the movie is modeled like the pop tune at its center - it's light, fast-moving and irresistible.

For one thing, it was smart for Mr. Hanks, in his first turn behind the camera, to pick a simple, engaging story. It is the tale of an early '60s small-town band called the Wonders (as in ''one-hit'') who win a taste of stardom by virtue of a catchy tune.

In the blink of an eye, the boys go from making a single in a church - with a relative (Chris Isaak) who usually records choirs - to appearing on national TV. It's a head-spinning, life-changing trip; the boys survive, but the band does not.

This is no sweeping epic, no layered metaphor. It is entertainment, pure and simple, and it works.

Part of the reason is the cast. It was smart to make the affable, Hanks-like Tom Everett Scott as the key character, the band's jazz-loving drummer Guy, and to give the GQ-handsome Johnathon Schaech the role of Jimmy, the self-centered songwriter. Liv Tyler is probably a little too gorgeous to believe (though nicely vulnerable) as the Jimmy's naive girlfriend, Faye, while Steve Zahn shines as the group's comic foil.

Mr. Hanks takes pains to submerge the story's sexual undertones in favor of PG-rated wholesomeness. We never see what Faye and Jimmy do alone together, and when girls in the audience scream ''I want you,'' it's not lust, it's puppy love. It robs the movie of anything like an edge, certainly, but makes perfect sense in context. It was a more innocent time, after all, when even Elvis Presley's hips were deemed too racy for public viewing.

For all its restraint, though, That Thing You Do! is a ton of fun - a romantic romp as sweet and bubbly as a Coke float. As a newborn auteur, Mr. Hanks doesn't aim too high, but he hits a bull's-eye.

Published Oct. 4, 1996.