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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It’s Tom Hanks playing Mister Rogers.

Yes, there’s a lot more to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but that really should be the only selling point you need. This is no-brainer, slam-dunk, grand-slam, note-perfect casting on a level that we haven’t been lucky enough to see since… well, since Hanks played Walt Disney, come to think of it.

Of course Hanks is every bit as brilliant as you’d expect. It’s a transformative and uncanny performance that perfectly captures the endless curiosity, compassion, patience, and childlike joy that we’ve all come to expect from Fred Rogers and his TV persona.

(Side note: It was recently discovered — after the film had been shot — that Tom Hanks and Fred Rogers are in fact sixth cousins. That’s about as far apart as two cousins can reasonably call themselves, but still.)

Yet Hanks is such a supreme acting talent that with only the faintest squint of his eye, he hints at something else going on under the surface — it could be the burden of carrying so many others’ pain, it could be the knowledge of his own encroaching age and approaching mortality, or it could be anything else. In any case, it’s something that Rogers is working through by doing his best to leave a positive impact in the world.

In a recent interview, Chris Cooper (more on him later) talked about working with Hanks in this movie, and he described it as “looking into the eyes of God.” I couldn’t put it better myself.

Even so, Hanks is only a prominent supporting player here. This is absolutely a movie about Mister Rogers, but it’s not his story or his biopic. So if you somehow still need more reasons to go see the movie, read on.

The film is loosely inspired by an Esquire article about Mister Rogers titled “Can You Say… Hero?”, written by Tom Junod. In this heavily fictionalized account of the article’s development, our protagonist is an Esquire correspondent named Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys. He’s got a reputation as a hard-hitting investigative journalist, with at least one industry award to his name. So naturally, it comes as a blow to his ego when he’s assigned to write a 400-word puff piece on a PBS kids’ show host in Pittsburgh.

It bears remembering that Lloyd is an investigative journalist by trade — while he’s a man of integrity with a strong sense of justice, he’s also got the scars to show for his years in covering wars and politicians and whatnot. There’s also the recent development that his wife (Andrea, played by Susan Kelechi Watson) recently gave birth, so now Lloyd has to figure out how to be a father. It certainly doesn’t help that Lloyd has his own metric ton of unresolved daddy issues and childhood trauma, all of which blows up in a big way when his father (Jerry, played by Chris Cooper) suddenly comes in and tries to reconnect.

Put simply, the man is a wreck. He’s jaded, he’s cynical, he’s a pathological workaholic, and he refuses to forgive his fuck-up father. What’s worse, he’s internalized all of this to an unhealthy degree and it’s clearly destroying him. He’s utterly miserable and it looks like spite is all that’s keeping him going.

And then he meets Mister Rogers.

Of course — as with so many people who’ve ever seen or heard of Mister Rogers — Lloyd’s first instinct is to think that this guy is way too good to be true. So he interviews Mister Rogers with an eye toward getting under his skin, trying to see what makes him tick. Surely, there has to be some underlying trauma, some inner demon, to balance all this out. How can there possibly be this much light without any darkness?

That’s about the time when Mister Rogers brings out his puppets. Of course Lloyd doesn’t want to talk with Daniel Striped Tiger, he wants to keep asking Mister Rogers how he deals with the stress of his job. In response, I wanted to scream “Dude! You’ve got your answer! He’s showing you right now!

To make it perfectly clear, Mister Rogers quickly appoints himself as a kind of spiritual guide for Lloyd. As he did with so many kids and adults, Mister Rogers approaches Lloyd with a sympathetic ear, endless humility and patience, and an uncanny gift for silence. As busy as Mister Rogers clearly is, he takes the time and pays the attention to make it clear that Lloyd Vogel’s well-being is the single most important thing to him in the whole world at that exact moment.

In short, Lloyd Vogel is a case study for Mister Rogers. He’s a textbook example of the lives that Mister Rogers changed for the better. Yet Vogel isn’t some supporting character with a minor subplot, he’s the protagonist and his redemptive arc is the driving force of the plot. Vogel isn’t there to hold up Mister Rogers, it’s the other way around. That was a bold and deeply inspired move.

At one point in the film (to paraphrase), Mister Rogers states that fame isn’t merely an end in itself, and what’s done with that fame is far more important. There’s another point when Joanne Rogers (played in a brief yet rock-solid supporting turn by Maryann Plunkett) says they don’t really appreciate Mister Rogers being called a saint, because that implies he’s something greater that no mortal man could ever aspire to.

Nobody else could ever be Mister Rogers, and that’s okay — a core part of his ethos is the notion that we all matter and we’re all important precisely because every single one of us is wholly unique. Yet we can all learn from his example in making the world a kinder and more understanding place. Through his TV show, Mister Rogers showed us how. And through the example of Lloyd Vogel, the filmmakers show us how.

I’ve already heaped a ton of well-deserved praise on Tom Hanks, but it’s worth coming back to him to note the subtle ways in which we get to see Mister Rogers dealing with his own stress and anger. On occasion, the film will cut to Mister Rogers swimming laps or praying for people by name, and those moments are so much more powerful precisely because we’ve been told in advance that it’s how he deals with stress. My personal favorite example comes when he hits the lowest notes on a piano as hard as he can — you’ll know it when you see it. All of this serves to humanize Mister Rogers in a subtle and elegant way without detracting from his persona or distracting from the main plot. Magnificent.

Matthew Rhys deserves a great deal of credit as the film’s anchor. He makes it clear that Lloyd is toxic and self-destructive, but he’s not a cartoonish grump. The character nicely develops into a better human being and a more devoted father, but the development arc doesn’t feel overly cloying or anodyne. He strikes an ideal middle ground that will feel immediately relatable to anyone living with the stresses of modern adult life. Beautifully done.

Yet the film’s true unsung hero here is Chris Cooper. He’s spent the past several years playing so many different kinds of assholes, and all of that experience pays off in a big way here. He elegantly plays Jerry as a man with a long history of deeply hurtful behavior, and he doesn’t want to be that person anymore, but it’s still an open question as to whether he can change or make amends. There are so many shades of grey here that a lesser actor could never have delivered. It’s extraordinary work.

The rest of the supporting cast is perfectly solid, but it’s the restaurant scene in the third act that I really want to talk about. If you’ve seen the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — and if you haven’t, you should absolutely get on that because it’s amazing — you will recognize a lot of faces in that restaurant scene. It’s almost like the filmmakers reached out to anyone with any living memory of Fred Rogers and gave them a cameo in that scene. Beautiful.

All that’s left is to talk about the more stylistic touches. Most notably, all the exterior shots are presented as moving dioramas in the style of Mister Rogers’ television show. It’s a cute touch, but I don’t think it necessarily works as a “one size fits all” approach. There are some emotionally heightened moments when it works beautifully, and there are some less remarkable moments when a photo-real establishing shot might have been preferable.

And then there’s the dream sequence. I’m sorry, but for me, that was going a step too far. For one thing, it involves Mister Rogers himself appearing in the Land of Make-Believe, a line that the real Fred Rogers insisted on never crossing in the actual show. More importantly, the rest of the film was extremely careful in maintaining a perfect balance between the whimsical and the authentic. I know a dream sequence can get away with shooting that balance straight to hell, but I still found the tonal shift extremely jarring. Moreover, while the protagonist certainly needed to be taken down a peg or two, making him an outright punchline like that was an unwise move.

That said, the dream sequence does end with a beautifully moving scene between Lloyd and his late mother (played by Jessica Hecht). That was a tearjerking and indispensable scene, I just wish there was a better way of incorporating it into the plot.

Yet any points I take away for the film’s extremely minor flaws, I have to give right back tenfold because of two simple letters: PG. Yes, this is very clearly a PG-rated film. It’s a movie that deals with mortality, parenthood, marital infidelity, alcoholism, and other heavy themes in an uncompromising way that might have fit right at home in a PG-13 film. It’s a movie very clearly built for adults, about learning from a kids’ show host and applying his lessons to a cruel and chaotic grown-up world. And the filmmakers deliver all of this in a movie that parents can watch and enjoy with their kids. That in itself is a tremendous accomplishment.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a delightful companion piece to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and a marvelous film in its own right. The performances are incredible across the board, anchored by Tom Hanks in the role of a lifetime (which is really saying something, in the case of Tom Hanks). The whole movie is a beautiful celebration of Mister Rogers, exemplifying what made him such a hugely important figure and how we can all learn from his example to make the world a better place.

Yes, it might easily come off as saccharine, but if you’re the type to complain about a Mister Rogers movie being saccharine, you’re probably the type who needs this movie most of all. This one gets a strong recommendation. Definitely check it out.

Though seriously, if you haven’t seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor? yet, do yourself a favor and get on that ASAP.

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