Tom Hanks Plays Fred Rogers, Ushering Kindness Back to the Neighborhood.
DIRECTED BY MARIELLE HELLER/2019
“Time spent with Fred Rogers is exactly what this hateful and angry world needs right now.”
Refrains echoing that sentiment were far from uncommon in the wake of 2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Made by non-fiction film luminary Morgan Neville, that popular documentary, with brilliant simplicity, took us inside the life story of the late Mr. Rogers himself. Mostly though, it took us inside his quiet altruistic selflessness, celebrating the man’s impact in his television crusade for kindness and self-esteem. Won’t You Be My Neighbor rose far above the trappings of the celebrity bio-doc, legitimately putting forth the ethos and love of its long-departed star, gently challenging all of us to be better people. Neville’s film may not have ended up with an Academy award, but it absolutely won our hearts.
Then came the announcement that living legend and venerable everyman actor Tom Hanks would be portraying Fred Rogers in a narrative film. Though it’s hard to imagine better casting, the oft-failed notion of adapting a winning documentary into a narrative proper couldn’t help but seem particularly misguided this time. The odds of the filmmakers surpassing, or even matching, the impact of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? seemed particularly remote.
So too, for that matter, does the entire movie. Though A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood never strives to be cinema writ large, per se, it does boldly go for a very specific “through the looking glass” non-reality. Which is to say, the quaint little model houses and herky-jerky cars that bookend every episode of children’s television that Rogers ever did is not only recreated but expanded upon. The camera glides beyond the usual ends of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, and into the other cities and airports, complete with toy planes taxi-ing down handcrafted runways. It’s all in the bold service of the film’s quest to demonstrate that no matter how old we get, we remain neighbors at heart.
Tom Hanks, who’s allowed a portion of his latter-day career to playing beloved true-life figures (“Sully” Sullenberger, Walt Disney, etc.), is saddled with the burden of the film’s very viability. Although Fred Rogers is not the central character in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, so much of it nevertheless does revolve around him. Once the initial “uncanny valley”-type of reaction to Hanks’ almost-but-not-exact physical and vocal likeness to Mr. Rogers is gotten past (the very first thing he is asked to do is walk through that familiar door singing that familiar song- an impossible threshold for anyone to fully reach), we the audience settle into his version of this man we’ve all grown up knowing as our television neighbor. It’s true that Hanks’s Rogers lacks the twinkle that the real man had in his eye, though he compensates in the areas of gentility and demeanor. It’s a performance that’s walking a ridiculously thin line between genuine and inadvertently creepy, but if anyone can manage it, it’s Tom Hanks. And, he most assuredly does.
Enter director Marielle Heller, fresh off her own 2018 victory lap with the well-received Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Heller, utilizing a smartly simple screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, manages to evoke the positive nostalgia and empathy-generating warmth of Neville’s film, but in a very different way- thus greatly justifying its existence. But more than that, Heller’s film- in true Fred Rogers fashion- finds a way to actively engage the viewer with life lessons that are being played out. It is, from its first moments, a feature-length episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood for adults.
The film’s actual main character is the hardened and cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), based upon real-life journalist Tom Junod. Vogel cringes when his editor at Esquire magazine assigns him the task of profiling Fred Rogers for its “heroes” issue. “The guy who plays with puppets for a living?”, sneers Vogel. It’s a forgone conclusion that by the end, his withered heart will have grown. (Maybe not exactly multiple sizes larger, but for Lloyd, any progress in this department is marked). But it’s the “how” of it that matters, and Heller and company most certainly stick the landing. Though their raisons d’etre and methodologies are quite different, like Neville’s documentary of last year, this film sends forth its viewers truly inspired for the sake of kindness.
In his unlikely New York-to-Pittsburgh friendship with Rogers (who was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church and student of child psychology), Vogel begins to rekindle his relationship with his long estranged, recently resurfaced father (Chris Cooper). There’s a lot of bad blood here, resulting in some fairly tense, heated, and sometimes physical confrontations between the two men. (Though this film, with this being its central issue, is by and large intended for grownups, there’s only one or two mild swear words in the entire thing. Mr. Rogers would no doubt approve of the squeaky-clean telling). Though Hanks is getting the lion’s share of praise associated with this movie, Cooper is its secret weapon, and Heller is its strong spine.
Every year yields its crop of “important movies”, and 2019 will be no exception. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will not be forgotten, but it’s likely only Hanks will be remembered. But this deceptively bold film is worthy of more focused attention, both in terms of critical awards and in terms of simply being seen. The movie brings the odd quirk of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood while also keying into the altruistic heart behind it all. It’s a film that acknowledges that while there’s significant pain in life, a special friendship can work wonders. And that’s a real, beautiful thing.