Fred Rogers was a children's television institution for decades, his calm and friendly manner taught a wide variety of life lessons from sharing to divorce. His personal life mirrored his on-screen personality. His convictions of faith and uncompromising ability to find good in things is the basis for the new film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
The film opens with a near-perfect recreation of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, complete with Tom Hanks playing Mister Rogers to a nuanced tee. All the familiar motions are gone through from changing into the familiar red cardigan and jauntily tossing a shoe hand to hand in time with the opening lyrics.
While Hanks doesn't exactly look like his inspiration, the way the actor carries himself and shares the same vocal inflections in uncanny. It's not surprising Hanks would be chosen to play Mister Rogers. His reputation as Hollywood's “Nice Guy” made him the ideal casting choice even before Hanks recently found out that he was a sixth cousin to his role's namesake.
The film takes a different direction when Mister Rogers introduces the audience to his new friend: reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical writer for Esquire Magazine burdened by family issues and a deep resentment for his father. Every line in Vogel's face is etched with anger and misery, which is why his editor sends him to cover Rogers as a means to improve Vogel's image.
The “Neighborhood” elements play well in establishing shots by using toy vehicles and buildings to set up scene transitions. By the time Vogel makes it to Pittsburg, he is convinced that there is more to Roger's “good guy” persona. Yet the harder Vogel tries to expose the “real” Mister Rogers, Rogers' innate goodness ends up having an effect on him. Rhys is a perfect contrast to the endless optimism of Hanks' Rogers, and both person's worldviews have a profound effect on the other.
The scenes of Mister Rogers are presented as a “Best of” compilation in many ways, some of his best quotes taken from various sources to present a comprehensive view of Roger's career. One of the most striking is a take on the “Ten Seconds” speech that he gave at 1997 Emmy awards show. In the movie, the moment is presented slightly differently, though no less effective as it breaks the fourth wall, and you realize that Hanks as Rogers is directly addressing the audience. Cinema is at its most effective when it establishes a genuine connection with the audience, and the shift was felt in the theater turned from muted laughter to sniffling.
There are also moments in this film that could best be described as “surreal,” especially as Rogers' words and nature start to affect Vogel, wearing down his defenses to the point that the reporter starts seeing the children's show host everywhere as his own world falls apart. It's a strange moment, but it conveys Vogel's shifts in perspectives as he comes to terms with his own inner pain. Be prepared to bring a few tissues to the theater.
Ultimately, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” becomes a companion piece to last year's excellent “Won't You Be My Neighbor” documentary. The fact is not lost that two films about Mister Rogers have come out in a year's time, a statement that positivity and kindness can provide a benefit to everyone in today's world. The film will undoubtedly make audiences laugh, cry, and think back on simpler times while perhaps learning, or perhaps being reminded of, a few new lessons along the way. If Hanks doesn't win an award for his performance, it would be surprising.