Most of us know Tom Hanks as America’s favorite movie star, universally praised for his well-acted portrayals and kind real-life demeanor. It therefore seems quite apropos that he plays one of the most famous “nice” personalities ever as Mister Rogers — the host of the popular children’s program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
It’s the late nineties, and journalist Lloyd Vogel — played by Matthew Rhys — is in a tough spot in life. His wife Andrea — played by Susan Kelechi Watson — has recently given birth to their son, and his estranged father — played by Chris Cooper — arrives attempting to make amends, but Lloyd still harbors ill feelings toward him. However, when his employer Esquire magazine commissions him to write a piece on Mister Rogers, his worldview is radically altered by the TV host’s calm, reassuring demeanor.
“A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” took a while to get made into a film, with the script floating around Hollywood as long as eight years ago. Yet the 18-year gap between “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” going off air and present day is well served for the movie, since enough time has passed to turn Mister Rogers into a figure of nostalgia.
In a funny way, that means a good chunk of this paper’s readers have never seen an episode of Mister Rogers, which is a real shame. Fortunately, there’s now movies like last year’s solid documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and this, both of which rightfully celebrate his extraordinary personality and remind us all the importance of love, forgiveness and honesty.
The film has Mister Rogers as the recognizable character of fame, but the story is really centered on the journalist Lloyd, and what impact Rogers has on his broken relationship with his father. Rhys plays Lloyd with a wide range, beginning his assignment with suspicion that Rogers is as genuine on camera as he is off.
Gradually as he comes to appreciate Rogers’ legitimacy, the audience is in Lloyd’s shoes the whole way, so they too feel they have found someone who renews our hope in humanity. Hanks’ portrayal is all-star level, properly recreating Rogers’ speech style, physical movements and compassion.
The script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster tries something different with the otherwise tired Hollywood biopic formula. Framing the movie as a sort of feature length episode of Rogers’ TV show, the scene transitions even include the miniature models from the Neighborhood set.
It gets the audience in the right mood — that yes, this is rather explicitly a story with a moral about handling your feelings, but it’s a message many could still use even as adults. That’s the power of Rogers; he may have seemed overly schmaltzy and basic, but he was honest.
The direction by Marielle Heller additionally contains some interesting quirks, but not all of them entirely gel. At times Lloyd hallucinates that he sees Rogers in public when he’s not really there, or that he’s on the Rogers show as a foot tall puppet, and it came across as a bit of a desperate attempt to give the movie some visual flair.
The standout sequence that really works is subtle — when he asks for Lloyd to take a moment to appreciate everybody in his life who has helped him. It’s a minute of silence in real time, and the camera slowly pushes in on Rogers. His gaze is initially on Lloyd, but as the camera gets closer, his eyes shift toward the camera itself, and you realize with astonishment that he’s really telling the viewer to do the same as well.
As one of the millions of children who grew up adoring Mister Rogers on TV, I can safely say this is a film the man himself would have approved of. It’s not out to paint him as a saint or tear him down like an exposé. They just wanted to reiterate the enduring message of his show — that it’s okay to feel sad, and sometimes just talking about our feelings to each other is enough to feel better. And for the Thanksgiving weekend, something as heartwarming as this movie just feels right.
Three and a half stars.
- Superb lead performance by Tom Hanks.
- Universal themes.
- Some out of nowhere hallucinatory sequences.
- Slow pace.
- Overly sweet.