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‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ is beautiful indeed

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There are a certain few people in this world for whom a nigh-universal affection is held. These people are beloved for reasons that essentially transcend our individual biases, people who are by all appearances genuinely decent.

People like Mr. Rogers.

I don’t care who you are – you probably have a fondness in your heart for Mr. Rogers. He is an icon, a man not just nice but Nice, a living embodiment of humanity’s innate love for our children. To so many of us, Fred Rogers is the Socratic ideal of a good human being.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” attempts to show us just how monumental an impact an encounter with such a person can have on our lives. Inspired by a 1998 Esquire profile written by Tom Junod, the film opens a window onto the one singular truth about Mr. Rogers that is both unbelievable and utterly expected – that he is precisely the man he appears to be.

Junod stand-in Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, TV’s “The Americans”) is an award-winning magazine writer (albeit one with a reputation as a bit of a king-killer) living in New York with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson, TV’s “This is Us”) and infant son. He has a combative and angry relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper, “Cars 3”); that anger winds up boiling over into a fistfight at a family wedding.

Still bearing the scrapes and scratches from getting punched by his dad, Lloyd reports to his editor Ellen (Christine Lahti, TV’s “Hawaii Five-0”) and receives an unexpected assignment. For an upcoming issue celebrating heroes, Lloyd is to interview Mr. Rogers. Despite some initial protestations, he reluctantly accepts the job.

From there, he’s off to Pittsburgh and the studios of WQED, production home of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” where he sits down face-to-face with Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, “Toy Story 4”). Initially, Lloyd is nonplussed by and suspicious of the man’s behavior – could anyone possibly be THAT nice? For real? – and yet he finds himself unable to withstand the simple, wholesome charm of Mr. Rogers.

As Lloyd and Mr. Rogers continue to connect, Lloyd finds himself reevaluating himself and his relationships. To have someone as fundamentally good as Fred Rogers believe so totally in his goodness … might it guide Lloyd to actually strive toward that goodness, to strengthen or rebuild the bonds that make up his world?

All of this, by the way, unfolds within the framing device of an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Has there ever been a more apt marriage of actor and role than Tom Hanks playing Mr. Rogers? America’s Dad taking on the persona of perhaps the nicest person in the history of television? Simply perfection; no else could do it.

But “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” isn’t the story of Mr. Rogers. Not really. It’s the story of Lloyd Vogel, of this talented, broken man desperately searching for answers to questions he’s not even sure he understands. Questions about love and fatherhood and manhood – questions that he doesn’t know how to articulate, but to which Mr. Rogers inherently knows how to respond even as they remain unasked.

The recreation of the world of Mr. Rogers – his cozy, familiar home; the lo-fi fantastical nature of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe – is note-perfect, capturing every nuance for which one might hope. The episode framing device allows for even more extensions into that world; there’s an ongoing motif using the iconic opening/closing model sets from the show that is delightful in a way that carries the beautiful simplicity forward throughout.

(There’s a dream sequence – about which the less said the better – involving the entirety of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that is an absolute highlight. It’s wonderful, but I won’t be the one to spill the beans about the specifics. You’ll see.)

Director Marielle Heller has shown considerable aptitude for this sort of character study (last year’s excellent “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a perfect example), but there’s an added layer of complexity with a man like Fred Rogers. He is such an icon, such a portrait of goodness, that making him a protagonist doesn’t really work – there’s nothing ambiguous, no gray area. And inventing that ambiguity would go against the very nature of the man.

And make no mistake – Hanks embodies that nature. The performance isn’t an impersonation or a caricature; honestly, you never really forget that it’s Tom Hanks that you’re watching. But that’s the genius of it – no one was going to be able to BE Mr. Rogers, but by having someone with a similar amiable nature and geniality, it works. Tom Hanks radiates decency – and that decency is what allows him to fill Fred Rogers’s sneakers. It’s a wonderful performance – one that we’ll be hearing more about down the road.

Rhys is great as Lloyd, capturing the fractured nature of the man in ways both overt and subtle. He does a particularly great job in the scenes alongside Hanks; watching the internal struggles with his own cynicism is particularly engaging. It’s challenging, but Rhys proves up to it. Cooper steals a couple of his scenes with his peculiar brand of irascible charm; Watson is wonderful as well. Enrico Colantoni and Maryann Plunkett are also excellent, as Bill Isler and Joanne Rogers respectively.

(Also noteworthy: A number of figures from the real-life “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” appear in cameos in the film.)

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a thoughtful, well-made story about the power of the good. Fred Rogers is someone beloved by so many; it would have been easy to get tripped up in any number of ways. Instead, thanks to a fantastic performance by Hanks, Heller and company have created a lovely tribute to the memory of a lovely human being.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 November 2019 06:43

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