Here’s a confession: Although Tom Hanks is one of my favorite actors, and I got caught up in the skewed homespun mystique of Mister Rogers thanks to last year’s sublime documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” when it was announced that Hanks would play the cardigan-sweatered children’s TV legend in a new dramatic feature, I wondered, frankly, if the casting was right. Hanks has always been at home playing fast-break wise guys; even when he inhabits a character as innocent as Forrest Gump, there’s an alpha directness to him. I wondered if Hanks would be gentle enough to play Fred Rogers.
But as Mister Rogers himself might have asked: Why did I ever doubt that Tom Hanks could be my neighbor?
In “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Hanks isn’t just good — he’s transporting. He takes on Mister Rogers’ legendary mannerisms and owns them, using them as a conduit to Rogers’ disarming inner spirit. He makes you believe in this too-nice-for-words man who is all about believing. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a soft-hearted fable that works on you in an enchanting way. When the film comes out (at Thanksgiving), there won’t be a dry eye in the megaplexes of America.
Early on, Hanks, with bushy eyebrows and flat silver hair, opens the door and walks onto the makeshift castle-and-train-track set of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” taking off his street shoes and putting on his blue sneakers, zipping up his red sweater, and fixing the camera with a smile so placid it might seem frozen — except that it’s such an infectious, smell-the-roses grin.
Hanks nails Fred Rogers’ so-delicate-it’s-peculiar speaking style — the folksy singsong that could almost be a drawl, the way the words come out slowly enough to make him sound like a benevolent hypnotist. Mister Rogers, of course, has been parodied many times, but what Hanks gets, playing him with drop-dead sincerity, isn’t just the talking-to-a-child rhythm. It’s the way that Rogers uses that halting, wide-eyed mystique to slow the whole world down, to create a safe space of inquiry, so that you start to notice things you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Directed by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), from a script by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is based on a 1998 Esquire cover story in which Tom Junod, the magazine’s star feature writer, set out to do a profile of Fred Rogers, only to learn that spending time, as an adult, with Mister Rogers was having a profound effect on him. It was cracking open his darkness, letting the sunshine in. So Junod wrote a piece about the true meaning of Mister Rogers: not the fact that he was a famous walking smile button of a kids’ TV host, like the Stage Manager from “Our Town” reincarnated as an arrested-development case, but that behind the smile lay a weird sort of tough-nut faith that made him willing to look at dark things, and a philosophy of life that can only be described as…love. As in: love your children, love thy neighbor, love yourself. Fred Rogers may have come off, on TV, like a walking piece of kitsch, but the real truth is that this ordained Presbyterian minister was the world’s squarest Middle American flower child.
In the movie, which is set in the late ’90s, the Junod character is Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys as an ace magazine writer who glares with self-serious gloom. Yet from everything we can see, he is more or less living the life. He’s a National Magazine Award winner (early on, he’s a presenter at that ceremony, where he testifies to the quirky pleasures of glossy-book journalism), and he’s married to the smart and lovely Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), with an infant son. What’s not to cherish?
But Lloyd, as we learn, has major daddy issues. At the wedding for his sister’s third marriage, he runs into his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), for the first time in years, and it’s not a pretty sight. Lloyd has so much rage that he punches his dad in the face. I didn’t totally buy that punch, but it gets the job done; it captures what a father-son estrangement this lacerating can feel like.
Back at Esquire, Lloyd is assigned to do a short profile of Fred Rogers for the magazine’s “Hero” issue. The subject couldn’t be further out of his wheelhouse, but he trudges off to the WQED studios in Pittsburgh, where “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is taped on a soundstage for national syndication. From the start, Marielle Heller does something nimble and playful: She shoots the scenes from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as if we were watching them on an old video screen, and she plays off the miniature train-set architecture by filming establishing shots of the cities where the film is set — New York, Pittsburgh — out of the same materials. All of which brings out the fairy-tale TV playland dimension of the story she’s telling. The sets of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” are painted pasteboard, and the puppets look like they were bought in a cheap toy store, but there’s a magic-of-make-believe quality to the whole thing. The world of Mister Rogers takes wing only because the kids who are watching it believe in it.
And Rogers, as Hanks plays him, is a different sort of alchemist. Lloyd sits down to interview him, asking all sorts of artfully probing questions, only to discover, to his quiet dismay, that Rogers is more interested in interviewing him. Beneath the children’s-host façade, Fred is like a psychiatrist crossed with a Zen guru. He tries to coax out Lloyd’s demons and awaken him to the magic of each moment.
Yet if “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” were just a movie about how a beloved TV personality turned out to be an ardent life coach, it might not come to much. As the film presents it, the transcendent oddity of Fred Rogers’ personality is that he relates to children so much because he’s an overgrown child himself. That, you could say, has been the joke about him for 50 years. What the film captures is that Fred, beneath his dry parson’s manners, is so in touch with his inner child because he recognizes that children are radically richer than we give them credit for. We focus, says Fred, on what they’re going to be. But they already are…themselves. And the adults they turn into are still, deep down, those same children, as primal in their vulnerability and sadness, their petulance and joy, their innocence and love. There’s a wondrous scene, touching and bitingly funny, in which Lloyd is on the set, and Fred sings “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?” in the falsetto puppet voice of Daniel Tiger; we see Fred, in his glasses, singing the song, doing it for Lloyd’s benefit, creating an illusion that’s also real.
Heller, as she proved in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” has a gift for flooding seemingly straightforward scenes with emotion. The movie fills in Fred’s mystery, bit by bit, showing us that in his way he lives in the real world. He’s got anger issues he deals with by swimming, reading scripture, and pounding on the bass register of the piano. He has two grown sons who gave him his share of heartache. He’s not magic; he’s not Santa Claus. Yet he’s a man who believes in applying the power of love to every moment and every person — because that’s what the child in all of us deserves. And when Lloyd applies that to his father (and to himself), he starts to heal.
The prospect of a talented but testy magazine writer coming to peace with the lout of a dad who betrayed him gives the film a conventional spine. Yet Matthew Rhys, with burning eyes, makes it work; he shows us how Lloyd’s anger is his crutch, the addiction that’s gotten in the way of his embracing his own family the way he should have. Why does Fred want to save him? Because he needs saving. But really because we all need saving, and Fred will save anyone around him. As Hanks embodies him, he’s the spirit that’s gone out of our world, the one that needs to make a comeback. A movie as lovely in its embrace as this one could be a good start.