When the nicest guy in Hollywood (Tom Hanks) plays America’s nicest guy (Fred Rogers) it is indeed “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” I can’t think of a better match between actor and role. If you’re young enough to remember watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” you’ll recognize how amazingly well Hanks captures the essence of Fred Rogers. It’s not an impersonation, but rather an exquisitely quiet embodiment, from the slow, methodical, clear cadence down to the kind demeanor, limitless imagination, warm smile and daily assurance that he likes us all just the way we are.
Director Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) wisely sidesteps the bio-pic formula. This is not the life and times of Fred Rogers. Instead, it’s a tribute to Rogers’ core beliefs: Be patient. Be kind. Be present. It’s empathy and love put in action - and our fractured existence could really use it.
Hanks and Heller venture beyond the zip-up cardigans to present a Dickensian tale of redemption reminiscent of “A Christmas Carol.” Rogers functions as all three ghosts, guiding a cynical journalist (Matthew Rhys) on a trek to heal a broken relationship with his estranged father (Kingston’s Chris Cooper, an Oscar-winner for “Adaptation”) and to forge a stronger bond with his infant son.
The film begins with a re-creation of the opening of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” with Hanks singing the iconic song, tossing the loafers, lacing up the sneakers. The camera moves to a picture board where Rogers introduces his friends: Lady Aberlin, King Friday XIII and Lloyd Vogel (Rhys), bloodied and bruised in his snapshot. “Someone has hurt him,” Rogers says, “and he’s having a hard time forgiving …” From there, we join the year 1998 and pick up with Lloyd, hard-hitting reporter and husband to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson, a delight). A family wedding brings his dead-beat father, Jerry (Cooper), back into his orbit, reopening old wounds. The usual push-pull ensues.
The structure is nonlinear with Heller blending various devices to oscillate between Rogers on set commenting about Lloyd’s behavior, “have you ever felt the way Lloyd does?” and Lloyd’s life in real-time, including the interviews between he and Rogers after Lloyd is asked to interview the PBS icon. It’s an assignment he takes on grudgingly. At first, Lloyd believes Rogers a phony, but by the end … you know the drill.
What she lacks in surprises, Heller makes up for in style and execution, recalling the aesthetic of the show, filming shots full of those iconic miniature cityscapes of New York and Pittsburgh to serve as transitions. She and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes also employ a grainy 1970s public access TV look for the show-within-the movie.
The script, penned by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”) is based on the real-life friendship between Rogers and “Esquire” reporter Tom Junod. If you want to learn more about Rogers, seek out Morgan Neville’s superb 2018 documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” The latter delivers an emotional gut punch whereas Heller’s film slyly stays with you, its power sneaking up days later. Most of that is due to Hanks, holding all the pieces together with another Oscar-worthy performance.
As the credits rolled at the screening I attended, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is an achievement, one that feels like one big group hug. Embrace it.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
Cast: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper.
(PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language.)