Quite possibly the nicest man in Hollywood, Tom Hanks was born to play Fred Rogers, the kindest man of the 20th century. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood also boasts the perfect director, Marielle Heller, who brings this drama with the heart of a Beatles’ song to life. Mr. Rogers is the subject, but love is the message in this wonderfully warm biopic; and in many ways they are shown to be one in the same.
Mr. Rogers has been the subject of two movies released within the past two years, so it’s safe to say the former kids-show-host is trending. Last summer, Morgan Nelville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? grossed 22 million dollars at the box office, and audiences responded to its subject and tone, which was as cozy and comfy as a worn-in cardigan sweater. Audiences adored Roger’s unswerving benevolence, a compassion for others that has become a foreign language in recent years.
Hurtful words are everywhere in 2019. A day doesn’t go by where we don’t read something negative on social media, the internet, or the news. So when audiences saw Mr. Rogers loving people for their insecurities in Nelville’s doc -as when he sings “It’s You I Like” with the handicapped Fred Erlanger- they were touched and inspired.
There’s a lot to like in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, even if the picture isn’t as moving as the documentary. It has plenty to say about how being a good person leads to living a great life. This is a message Lloyd (Mathew Rhys) has to learn the hard way. When the journalist is assigned an interview with Fred Rogers, his amusement turns to puzzlement.
“The hokey kid’s show guy?” he asks his editor. “It could do you some good,” the editor replies. She isn’t lying. Lloyd punched his father (Chris Cooper) at his sister’s (Tammy Blanchard) wedding that same week. Mr. Rogers might be the only person who can show him another way.
When the two meet on the set of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, Lloyd becomes the interviewee instead of the interviewer. “Why did you and your father fight?” Rogers asks with soft-spoken-sincerity. “How does that make you feel?”
Lloyd, unable to put his feelings into words, stays to watch an episode where two puppets talk about separated families. It hits home since his father left him and his mom at an early age. Now, he has to choose between his dying dad and his article’s deadline. His wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) wishes he would stay with his father at the hospital, even though it’s too much for him to bear. If that all sounds too depressing to be entertaining, it’s not. Heller, like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, finds an amiable, upbeat way of dealing with tough subject matter throughout.
The production’s gentle and visual style are essential in keeping this trolley moving on the right track. And Heller creates noteworthy stops along the way. The establishing shots of the show’s cardboard cities mirror Lloyd’s New York burrow, down to the steamy streets and honking taxis. In the most memorable scene, a group of kids rally everyone on the subway to sing the film’s title song, while Rogers claps and giggles like a toddler listening to music for the first time.
Another moment worth mentioning comes near the end of the run time. Rogers is congratulating his production team after work. Pausing between each person, he pats the individual on the shoulder, telling them in slow, unbroken sentences what it is that makes them special. What makes this scene real is the inability to separate Hanks from Rogers. He truly becomes him. It’s a performance that, like so many of Hanks’ past roles (Forrest Gump, Captain Phillips), nails everything- mannerisms, speech, and essence. From the sound of his voice to the twinkle in his eyes, Hanks does it all as Rogers, and he does it better than any other actor could have, conveying a man who changed lives on and off screen. Hopefully he’ll continue to do so via this unforgettable feel-good film.
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