The dark half

That Thing You Do and The Long Kiss Goodnight cast ugly shadows

Some of us remember that there are really two Tom Hankses--Saint Tom and his Evil Twin. Saint Tom won back-to-back Oscars for his charming, bloodless performances in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. He helped make Apollo 13 one of the most effortless entertainments of 1995, although he couldn't quite smother the toxic odor of fresh plastic that emanated from the film.

The Evil Twin was the incarnation from the early days who had converted many fans with his viperish tongue--as the smartass Buffy in the TV show Bosom Buddies, the callow son in Nothing in Common, the smug standup in Punchline. Cast a look back at any of these roles, and you'll rediscover a wicked comic sensibility that located the humanity inside abrasive blowhards. I predict these are the roles for which people will remember Tom Hanks; after all, America has forgotten Forrest Gump faster than Ronald Reagan, and the AIDS crisis rolls forward without regard to the distinction between sinners and Hanksian saints.

Although there are traces of both Toms to be found in That Thing You Do, Hanks' debut as writer and director, the suspense of which twin will prevail lasts through only a quarter of the film. Sadly, this is the only intrigue offered up in this overstarched ode to American consumer innocence in the early '60s. That Thing You Do threatens the shameless stereotypes it constructs with cats' claws, but when the deserving targets present themselves at their most vulnerable, the movie rolls over and expects audiences to stroke its tummy.

Indeed, the film proves that it's more difficult to make a smart, feel-good escapist flick than a smart, cynical, put-down comedy. In both genres, you must rely on the familiar yet transcend it by deciding which moments should be subverted. But in escapist comedy, all signs must point back toward cherished territory. That Thing You Do tries for a short while to have it both ways, but by the time you realize Hanks and company are serious about wanting to sweep you up in a spirit of giddy adolescent freshness, there simply isn't enough on screen that's exciting or even interesting to capture you. The glowing critical reactions to That Thing You Do are a by-product of Hanks' reputation as The Nicest Movie Star in the World, not an honest appraisal of the movie's strengths and weaknesses. The film's mood is muddled and painfully unsure of itself, and the performances are so zealous they never achieve harmony.

One of the most distracting things about the movie is the relentless mugging by its cast of attractive young actors. At the film's end, you feel like you've endured a face-making contest among high-school cut-ups. Any one of these guys alone in a classroom could make you laugh; squeezed together, they're forced to indulge their most primitive actor instincts and turn every scene into a competition for attention. After a while, I had trouble telling them apart.

That Thing You Do feels hollow because Tom Hanks is so neurotically opposed to offending anyone. His character, a slick artist-and-repertoire agent from the fictional Playtone Records who swoops in to guide a new sensation called The Wonders, alternately wears the expression of a proud papa and a hungry shark. His performance is indecipherable--confused and confusing. Does he want to exploit or advise them? The filmmaker tips his hand early on to let us know that he knows The Wonders possess little ability; since he can't decide whether to make their minisaga a cautionary tale or a junk-food frolic, the viewer is left to nibble on some not very choice bones.

The movie itself is as preordained and generic as the decision made by Hanks' character to anoint the band's drummer (Tom Everett Scott) as "Mr. Shades," the mysterious one who wears sunglasses. It's not at all distracting that Scott looks like Tom Hanks 20 years and 25 pounds ago. You can't ignore, however, how Hanks favors Scott with the greatest measure of his attention. The rest of the cast of That Thing You Do is disposable compared to Mr. Shades, who is the sole character rewarded for his good nature. (He gets to meet and jam with the jazz musician he idolizes.)

That Thing You Do finally implodes from its own good intentions. Tom Hanks has created a clueless, assembly-line comedy about the ruthless, assembly-line nature of American celebrity. It's depressing to see how little he has learned from his own bout with the spotlight.

Bet you didn't know there were also two Geena Davises. One has served American popular cinema well enough, if quietly and with a charming reticence, for the last decade. She has injected a humble intelligence into extravagant exercises from the likes of visionaries such as Ridley Scott, Tim Burton, and David Cronenberg. Even when her role was lost in service to those directors' cinematic agendas, Davis managed to break the surface through her own marvelous line-readings. Behind the dullest words she ever spoke for a camera lurked an awareness of these imposed limitations, tempered by a good-natured humor. She's like Diane Keaton, halfway to realizing she's a brainy bombshell.

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