Tom Hanks parlayed his tremendous success as an actor into forming his own production company, Playtone, to develop his own film and television projects. And then he stepped behind the camera.
To ease into this new role, he started by directing a few television episodes, then he directed his first film script: That Thing You Do! (1996).
Hanks took a minor role in this delightful tale of a band in the early 1960’s, that scores one peppy hit song, then promptly breaks up.
Hanks captures the visual fun of rock and roll in those innocent days. Hanks is good at recreating the glamour and unglamorous show business world of state fairs and network variety shows. He mines the subtlties of the era, from the clothes, to the music, to plastic and insincere show biz people, to the still-fresh 60’s optimism.
That Thing You Do! follows The Wonders from their garage, through a change in drummers, from playing restaurants, to regional gigs, to rock and roll revenues, to a hit record on the national charts, to the cusp of the big time. The film’s real story is each of the bandmembers finds their life path beyond the band and each other.
As the film’s writer, Hanks had to develop a plausible pop tune, since it will be played over and over throughout the film. He succeeds. The song, along with the other era-friendly songs, creates not just the soundrack but the soundscape that gives the film it’s bounce and fun.
Hanks directed a few more television episodes of series he was also producing, before tackling his second big screen feature: Larry Crowne (2011). This was supposed to be a big leap from That Thing You Do!, but it wasnt. Written with Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), it had a great cast and big production values, but it did not resonate with audiences or critics. In fact, the studio was disappointed that the film drew mostly people over age 50, not a welcoming demographic for Hollywood films with big hopes.
Although I was over age 50 at the time, the film didn’t grab me either, at first. I love the film now. The film is clever, deceptively heartwarming, and it grows on you.
The film follows Larry Crowne, a team leader at a big chain discount store. He is fired because he has no college background, and not wanting it to ever happen again, he enrolls at a local community college. The Dean of Students tells him that Speech 217 will change his life, and it does, in several ways.
I read that the story is based on someone Hanks knew, and Vardalos was hired by the studio to help write it with him. The film does have some funny, punchy dialogue, but not so cute that you can’t imagine real people talking that way.
After the film opened there was a story that Hanks encountered two people who had just seen the film and they told Hanks they didn’t like it. Hanks pulled out his billfold and handed them two twenties and apologized.
Unfortunately, Hanks hasn’t directed again, but he stays busy with many film projects.
Hanks writes stories of people who must take a leap of faith, through a newly open door and their lives change in unexpected ways. It’s no wonder that Hanks is such a popular actor, he’s earnest and faces challenges in ways we might wish we could. No, I can’t imagine myself as Captain Phillips or Jim Lovell, but he has that instant believability and his emotions ring true. The films he’s directed are very personal, they are words he wants to say, characters he comfortably fits into like a favorite pair of jeans.
I don’t know if he has more films half-finished in his typewriter (he’s a typewriter freak), but I hope so. Larry Crowne taught me to be patient, like a hot cup of tea, it will gain flavor.