TOM HANKS, ARGUABLY THE most beloved American movie star of the '90s, has written and directed his first movie. It's about exuberance. That Thing You Do! is a modest ode to joy, a celebration of youthful high spirits in the year 1964, when it was still possible for a quartet of fresh-scrubbed boys in Erie, Pa., to form a rock-and-roll band and hurtle to success with a blind trust in the benevolence of the universe. It is easily the most innocent movie of 1996, a conclusion Hanks won't contest. ""If you define innocence as a lack of cynicism, I agree,'' says the back-to-back Oscar winner. ""That's what I was going for. Because I think a vast majority of motion pictures have a huge, massive dose of cynicism. It's a decision you have to make. Am I going to devote my attention to something that has absolutely no consequence, or am I going to watch something that has some big, large dose of world-weariness?''
A good part of this movie's charm is precisely its lack of consequence. Unlike many of his fellow actors turned directors--Kevin Costner (""Dances With Wolves''), Warren Beatty (""Reds''), Mel Gibson (""Braveheart'')--Hanks thinks small. ""That Thing You Do!'' has the wispiest of plots, no interest in melodrama, a chaste sexuality that actually seems pre-1964 and nary a villain in sight. The worst you can say about the band's one unsympathetic member is that he's a self-important jerk. Amazingly, this does not come off as faux naivetE. Hanks seems genuinely to have a sunny outlook, having risen to the top of Hollywood without a whisper of scandal or any soul-baring displays of private angst. ""Very rarely is life split up into antagonistic-protagonistic camps,'' he says. ""I have yet to meet somebody who was a truly bad guy.''
It's hard not to think of the movie's protagonist, Guy Patterson, as its creator's alter ego, and not just because the appealing Tom Everett Scott bears a distinct resemblance to the young Hanks. He's the smartest of the boys, a drummer who works in his father's appliance store by day and blisses out on jazz at night. He joins the band when the group's original drummer breaks his arm. Their signature tune, ""That Thing You Do!,'' is a peppy, early-Beatles-style dance tune that opens the door to a contract with Play Tone Records, a state-fair tour and an invitation to Hollywood to appear on national TV in their matching suits. They first call themselves the Oneders, but everybody pronounces it O-needer, missing the pun, so they change it to the Wonders at the insistence of the Play Tone manager, Mr. White (Hanks). As it turns out, they are destined to be one-hit Wonders. But that's not the point. What matters to Hanks is that euphoric moment when the horizon looks limitless and the rush of hearing your first homemade single played on local radio sends you leaping down the street in a riot of uncontained excitement.
You wait for these innocents to be ground up and spat out by a soulless music establishment, but Hanks isn't recycling that old lament. Interestingly, the jerk in the group is the guy we're conditioned to think of as the hero--the uncompromis- ing artist. The earnest Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), the heartthrob songwriter, is the only one who feels demeaned when the Wonders don corny sailor suits to play in a beach-party movie. But in the scheme of this movie, he's just a spoilsport. Or as Guy quips, ""If this guy's a genius, I'm U Thant.'' Lenny (Steve Zahn), the guitarist, is a party animal himself, happy to score chicks (Zahn gives a zany ironic spin to his lines). The bass player (Ethan Embry) is just a hapless hick along for the ride before he joins the Marines. Guy loves the ride--and begins to realize he also loves Jimmy's girlfriend, Faye (Liv Tyler)--but what really gets his heart racing is the chance to improvise with his jazz idol, Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs). ""That Thing You Do!'', like its heroes, is happy to take things at face value. The only strained note is the smiling, ever-solicitous black bellcap Lamarr (Obba BabatundE), an embarrassing stereotype from another era. It's a movie made by someone who, like Guy, is comfortable in his own skin--a bright, bubbly, unneurotic shoe-tapper of a tale.
Hanks was only 8 years old in 1964, but he remembers it as ""an awfully cool time in my consciousness. I think that was the last opportunity in which you could fashion a story that didn't have to take into account so many other aspects of who we are in society. We hadn't started in Vietnam yet.'' But he started writing the script at a time when his own phenomenal success was beginning to taste sour. ""Philadelphia'' and ""Forrest Gump'' had made him the focus of never-ending worldwide attention. ""In the midst of the second go-around of the Academy Award attention, it just became a very unhealthy place for me to be. It should have been a celebratory thing, but because it had just been going on so long I was tired and falling into the traps of narcissism in a way that just isn't good for you. So I started writing this to see how far I could write it.''
It was Jonathan (""Philadelphia'') Demme who convinced him he should direct the movie himself, and Demme's company ended up producing the film for Twentieth Century Fox. Eager to please its star, Fox let him work on a relaxed, five-day-a-week schedule on a $26 million budget (modest by today's studio standards). Guy was the hardest role for Hanks to cast, and when he first saw Tom Everett Scott, ""he resembled me so much that I just instantaneously wrote him off. I said, "I can't cast this guy. It's just too embarrassing'.'' But when he saw him paired with Liv Tyler he knew that Scott was meant for the part. It never occurred to Hanks to have any sex in the movie, even though the Liv Tyler character is on the road all summer with her boyfriend. ""I just assumed that everyone would realize there were separate motel rooms, you know.'' Will today's audience make the same assumption?
Hanks will now return to acting in Steven Spielberg's World War II movie ""Saving Pvt. Ryan.'' Meanwhile, practically every other actor is turning director. Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's wonderful ""Big Night'' is already out, with movies by Matthew Broderick (""Infinity''), Steve Buscemi (""Trees Lounge'') and Kevin Spacey (""Albino Alligator'') on the horizon. In the works are movies by Johnny Depp, Tim Hutton, John Malkovich, Tommy Lee Jones and Denzel Washington. It is doubtful that any of them--not even Macaulay Culkin--could come up with something as unself-consciously wholesome as ""That Thing You Do!'' It's almost Gumpian.