Courtesy of Sony
There’s no role that Tom Hanks can’t play, and for those slight few who were nervous about the icon tackling another American hero shouldn’t fret, because within the first ten minutes of the new film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” - Hanks completely embodies the cardigan wearing icon Fred Rogers to the point where I was grinning ear to ear. And when the film hits theaters this Thanksgiving, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
But it should be said that Marielle Heller’s (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) inspired by a true story narrative is less about Mr. Rogers and more about Tom Junod, the Esquire investigative journalist sent to write a puff peace on the popular children’s show host. So if you want to learn more about Mr. Rogers, you’re better off checking out the doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” instead.
Nevertheless, Hanks is breathless and engrossing right down to the vocal inflection and mannerisms playing the kindred spirit, and “Neighborhood” hooks you from the start with the introduction that’s a shot-for-shot remake of the show “Mister Rogers Neighborhood;” except Hanks is the one singing the song, taking off his street shoes and putting on the blue sneakers, zipping up his red sweater and melting our hearts with a simple smile. Hanks even nails Rogers’ eerily specific speaking style. You know the kind of soft spoken gentleness that only Mister Rogers could muster, with words coming out just slowly enough, it’s transcendent.
Instead of tackling a real biopic, “Neighborhood” is based on the 1998 Esquire cover story in which Tom Junod set out to profile the children’s show host, only to discover that spending a lot of time with Mr. Rogers was having a huge impact on his life. It was breaking down his barriers and walls of emotions unseen before, and caused him to tackle inner demons.
In the film, set in the late ‘90s, the Junod character is Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys as a hot shot national magazine award winning writer who sighs when given the assignment to cover Fred Rogers (obviously, he feels his time could be better suited with more serious issues). At home, he’s married to lawyer Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) with a beautiful newborn baby, so you could say life is fairly good for the curmudgeon.
But Lloyd, as we learn, had a rough childhood that left him with a spout of daddy issues. At his sister’s third marriage, he runs into his pops, Jerry (Chris Cooper), for the first time in decades and they get into a screaming match that eventually ends with bloody noses.
Then, ironically enough, he’s given his next task: doing a short profile of Fred Rogers. Sure enough, he heads off to Pittsburgh, where “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is tapped on a sound-stage. From the start, Marielle Heller does something creative: shooting the scenes from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as though we’re watching them on an old video monitor, and utilizing the miniature train-set layout to help navigate scene transitions. In turn, helping “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” bolster with that fairy tale like quality.
Rogers, of course, has a different agenda all the same. When Lloyd sits down to interview him, probing with tough questions about his livelihood, Rogers spins it and begins asking Lloyd questions instead, tricking the writer into confessing his feelings right in the moment.
As Heller proved with “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” she understands the power of intimacy and emotion. She’s also tapped into the cultural impact Fred Rogers left on multiple generations. The movie soaks up Fred’s aurora, and his big kid personality, and showing that he too is just a human being like everyone else. He likes to pound on his piano and had issues with his own two children. To understand Mr. Rogers is to know he wasn’t a miracle worker, but that he believed every soul on this planet was deserving of compassion, a principle that Lloyd uses to help mend his past.
As Hanks and Rhys play their respective characters, we watch two men go on a journey of self discovery together. With burning eyes and clear anguish, Rhys makes the more conventional aspects of his daddy issues work and Hanks continues to remind us that he’s a national treasure that should be cherished. Then again, the entire message of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is that we’re all worth something, even when we don’t believe it.
Sony will release A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood on November 22, and the film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.