If you were raised on Mister Rogers, you may find your tear ducts a little wobbly at the first plinking piano notes that play during the opening credits of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
Director Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) jumps right into a re-creation of the song and sequence that began every episode of the Pittsburgh-based children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks’ Fred Rogers coming in that front door, switching out the suit jacket for the zippy sweater, and jauntily changing into his house Keds. (Younger audience members may be understandably perplexed about why this guy is tossing his shoe from hand to hand.)
But this is no straightforward biopic, and for that we can probably be glad. First of all, just last year saw a terrific documentary about Rogers, and secondly, it’s the rare biopic that doesn’t wander into predictability or cheese, or both. Heller is attempting something different and more off-kilter here, and mostly pulls it off.
The screenplay, by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, is based on an Esquire magazine profile by Tom Junod, and becomes a running juxtaposition between Rogers, the beatific yet always a little inscrutable American icon, and Matthew Rhys’ investigative journalist character Lloyd, a dyed-in-the-wool cynic who chafes at being given such a sappy story assignment.
Some viewers may be disappointed this film isn’t all about Fred Rogers, but after a bit of reflection, I think less may be better. Make no mistake: Hanks was born to play this role. He’s not channeling Rogers, exactly, but he has a firm grasp on the unflappable, generous sincerity that was the TV host’s trademark. Add in the underlying fact that Hanks is already one of our most beloved actors — the applause when he strolled onstage with the cast at the film’s world premiere on Saturday evening was thunderous — and you have an alchemical reaction for the ages. (That said, every so often a teensy bit of Forrest Gump does creep into his Pittsburgh twang.)
Heller’s movie becomes almost a debate between the whole of modern culture and Rogers. No matter how many times Rhys’ character asks him what’s really underneath all that nicey-nice talk, or who the “real” man is apart from the character he plays on the show, Rogers patiently explains that his mission is to help people — children, primarily, but clearly also the guy interviewing him — learn to deal with difficult feelings. And that talking about them makes them manageable.
Lloyd, harboring a lifetime of resentment for his absentee father (Chris Cooper) letting his mother die alone of a lingering illness, is steeped in urban emotional armor that proves difficult for Rogers to pierce — a challenge he apparently relished.
“He likes everyone, but he loves people like you,” Rogers’ producer (Enrico Colantoni) tells Lloyd. “You don’t really care for humanity, do you?” After sitting through a subway car full of people spontaneously singing “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” when they spot the host on board, we know Lloyd is a goner.
Eventually, he even finds himself in a wonderfully bizarre sequence in which he’s become a character in the Land of Make-Believe, with his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) playing the role of the show’s princess Lady Aberlin.
Heller also tips a hat to Rogers’ unique show format by interspersing scenes with tiny model landscapes. And it’s amusing to meet the staff who run the show, an adoring but exhausted group who constantly rearrange the day’s shooting lineup to accommodate Rogers’ daily meetings with children who want to visit and accede to his insistence that a shot that goes wrong isn’t always bad — as when he attempts to set up a tent on set.
“Children need to learn that when adults make plans they don’t always turn out like we hoped,” he says with a smile and a shrug. (I like to imagine anyone saying this to the tightly scheduled show runners of today.) Heller also finds moments to acknowledge that Rogers wasn’t perfect, and that he found his own ways of releasing the stress of being so many people’s de facto saint, including piano playing: He kept one on set, at least in this retelling.
I’m sure there will be viewers who will find all of this so sweet it makes their teeth hurt, and I feel bad for them. The real-life cover story that eventually ran was titled “Can You Say … ‘Hero’?,” and I can’t think of a better one for right now than Rogers. Hanks’ all-in portrayal ought to snag him an Oscar nomination, and ideally will also inspire a little more kindness in all of us.
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