Tom Hanks dons the famous hand-knit sweaters of Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, a tender-hearted and touching tribute to the television icon and the countless people that he inspired. Rather than go the traditional biopic route of covering the subject’s entire life and career, director Marielle Heller details the profound impact that Fred Rogers had on one person’s life to symbolize his larger cultural influence. As a companion to last year’s stellar documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, this narrative feature further explores the philosophy and worldview of a man who did everything he could to heal the world and make humanity just a little bit kinder.
The film’s true story centers around Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a hard-hearted Esquire journalist who seems to have met his match when he’s tasked with profiling the altruistic TV star Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks). Lloyd’s wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) is at first shocked by the news, then leaves him with one request as he jets off to Rogers’ hometown of Pittsburgh: “please don’t ruin my childhood.” From the moment he sets foot on the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood set, Vogel seems committed to staying emotionally unattached while interviewing his subject but as he spends more time with the soft-spoken Rogers, his cynical exterior slowly begins to erode.
When it was announced early last year that Tom Hanks would be portraying the legendary television star, the news almost seemed too good to be true. The pitch-perfect casting pays off early and often; as soon as Hanks steps onto the TV set singing the spritely theme song, there is no doubt that he is Fred Rogers. Hanks continually threads the needle between impression and caricature, channeling Rogers’ calm and soothing cadence without overplaying things. Rhys is also terrific as the peevish counterpoint to the benevolent Rogers, unveiling years of pain and personal turmoil within each conversation.
If Hanks as Rogers is the film’s headline, then the comparatively underrated aspect of A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is the imaginative and unconventional direction by Heller. Amid the film’s emotionally poignant tale, she adds playful touches like implementing miniature sets in the style of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to draw us closer to the fantastical world created by the film’s main character. Heller also works with editor Anne McCabe to recreate the patient and thoughtful pacing of Rogers’ landmark show. A quiet scene late in the film, a meditative and magical moment that I won’t dare spoil here, is one of the most captivating of the year.
With such a divine and seemingly infallible central figure at its core, there is a concern going into the film that it may try to uncover negative aspects of Rogers’ life. Those fears are allayed quickly as Heller certainly doesn’t seem interested in throwing mud on his legacy and instead, she humanizes him while bolstering his gracious persona at the same time. Above all, the movie seems utterly sincere in its depiction of both a hurting soul and the opposing force determined to heal it. Full of warmth and wisdom, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood showcases the simple power of human connection amid increasingly turbulent times.
Score – 4/5
Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Frozen II, starring Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, continues the journey of Elsa and Anna as they set out across an enchanted land to find the origin of Elsa’s powers in order to save their kingdom.
21 Bridges, starring Chadwick Boseman and Sienna Miller, is a police drama about an NYPD detective who puts all of New York City on lockdown in order for him and the authorities to defeat a pair of cop killers.
Playing this weekend at Cinema Center is a documentary double feature of Pollinators, which follows migratory beekeepers and their truckloads of honey bees and Fantastic Fungi, which explores the burgeoning market of fungi-based products.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup