“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a biographical essay in sweetness and light.
Tom Hanks playing the most beloved TV personality America has ever produced, “Mister Rogers,” may be the epitome of cinematic “on the nose” casting. A “national treasure portraying a national treasure” and all that.
But that’s precisely what is called for in this moving portrait not just of the man, but of his impact on those who came into contact with him in person, and the generations who started life watching him on TV.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me” director Marielle Heller and her screenwriter frame this portait within a fictionalized account of a cynical magazine journalist’s attempt to profile “a living saint,” and falling under the spell of a man who was a veritable “human whisperer.” That would be the soft-spoken Presbyterian pastor with an early childhood development degree, Fred Rogers.
On TV, he preached kindness, compassion, forgiveness and patience. He looked into the camera, as Hanks’ Rogers recalls, and imagined that “one child” he was talking to. And if that child, like him, got frustrated setting up a tent (as Fred does), here’s Mister Rogers showing you how to deal with frustration.
The fictional conceit here is pure manipulation. Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys of “The Americans”) is a hard-hitting investigative reporter assigned by his editor (Christine Lahti) to do a 400 word “puff piece” on Mister Rogers for a 1998 Esquire Magazine issue on “Heroes.”
He gets to write about “Someone good, for a change.” “We’ll see,” he mutters.
Vogel is a journalistic pitbull who chews up most of those he writes about. Rogers quietly and kindly regards him, leaves a lot of long pauses in their chat, and turns the interview around, probing Vogel’s open psychic wound, the reason he shows up in Pittsburgh for their conversation with a cut nose and the beginnings of a black eye.
Vogel has estranged father (Oscar winner Chris Cooper) issues, and a hair trigger rage about the subject. How mad do you have to be to get testy with Fred Rogers? Mad enough to walk out on the interview when Rogers gently turns the questioning on him?
It’s an obvious conceit, the “angry journalist” cliche. The whole movie is framed within it, with Rogers taping his show, dragging Vogel into it (in his dreams) for little childhood lessons about what to do when you’re feeling mad and “forgiveness.” His puppets pitch in. He does what Rogers was famous for doing, taking an interest and kindly devoting all his attention to the person he was with, even though he’s just met them.
The real magazine writer was Tom Junod, and the best reason to change his name for the movie was that all of this stuff is invented hokum. But it works, a motion picture parable built on lessons we’ve forgotten in the rage of adulthood in a divisive age.
Hanks isn’t as wiry and doesn’t attempt the high-pitched voice that made Rogers the target of generations of comedians. But he absolutely masters the hypnotic, soft-spoken calm Rogers projected, a calm that pervaded the set of his show and could seem to follow him into the world.
Lovely scenes in a local Pittsburgh restaurant where the other diners lapse into dead silence so that they can overhear Fred’s zen-like calmness exercise and the homilies that he passes on to Lloyd, or when Vogel and Rogers catch a New York subway, only to be serenaded by the other passengers, starting with the children, with generations of adults chiming in, with “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s” theme song, give the picture its heart.
It’s not just what he meant to us as individuals, it’s seeing what he meant to all of those around us that gets to you.
Rhys makes a marvelously bitter, broken “professional” — new to fatherhood, a bit of an emotional chore for his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson of “This is Us”).
Cooper is a properly inappropriate, clueless and self-centered Dad who can’t figure out why his son will never, ever forgive him for the past.
And “Just Shoot Me” veteran Enrico Colantoni underplays the disapproving TV show publicist who may have warned Fred away from speaking to this hatchet man, Vogel, but who isn’t surprised his boss, who scowled at being called “a living saint,” turns the reporter into a puddle of feelings, just by sizing him up and being himself — empathy personified.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” isn’t as weepy and sentimental as the fine documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” a film that conjured up not just Rogers’ persona and role in our lives, but childhood itself for millions of viewers. “Beautiful Day” is still a splendid synthesis of the essence of the man and his values, a teacher who never stopped teaching while he was alive, and via another Oscar-worthy performance by Tom Hanks, is teaching us still.
MPAA Rating: PG, (fisticuffs, alcohol abuse)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Enrico Colantoni, Christine Lahti and Chris Cooper.
Credits: Directed by Marielle Heller, script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, inspired by Tom Junod’s 1998 article for Esquire Magazine. A Sony/Tristar release.
Running time: 1:48