Dream casting of Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers pays off in unconventional drama

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Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers is the kind of dream casting that comes along only once in a lifetime. Rarely does an actor so beloved get to play a figure so beloved, a near-perfect melding of man and subject that feels like an emotional bear hug waiting to happen. 

Director Marielle Heller's "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," however, is a much different film than the Tom-Hanks-as-Mister-Rogers pitch would have you believe. Rather than following a conventional biopic structure, Heller channels and builds her film around the spirit of Rogers, which is embodied in Hanks' gentle, graceful performance. It's a movie that feels like a trip to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. 

Heller opens in Rogers' television world, with Hanks re-enacting the opening of the iconic children's television show, which ran for more than 30 years and affected generations of fans. We see him swap his shoes, zip his sweater and directly address the audience. Hanks is uncanny, speaking not only softly and slowly like the real Mister Rogers, but imbuing his speech with a cadence of deep, soulful kindness. It's as if he's talking and listening and feeling at the same time.

That's when we are introduced to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical magazine journalist who is assigned to write a short profile of Rogers for Esquire magazine for an upcoming issue on heroes. Narratively, it's an easy way to back into Rogers' story through an outsider's perspective. But the film takes a hard pivot away from Rogers and focuses on Lloyd's home life and his issues with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). 

That leaves Rogers on the periphery and, in a sense, he becomes a satellite orbiting his own movie. But that's where Heller's trick comes in: Hanks' — and through him, Rogers' — presence is so strong that it is felt throughout the film, even when he's not on screen. We're in his world, seeing things through his eyes, which makes everything a little more rich. Simple interactions and conversations take on greater weight; when Rogers has lunch with Lloyd and asks him to close his eyes and think about the people who are important to him, the entire film stops and takes a deep, meditative pause.

That's the power of Hanks' performance, and it's too bad the other story elements aren't as effective. Lloyd's character is a routine construct, an investigative journalist who looks down on celebrity puff pieces, until he becomes transformed by the one subject who can break him down. It's not just that: the story arc between Lloyd and his father follows beats so familiar you can play them before they play themselves, and Rhys' flat, uninvolving performance can't rise above its own clichéd nature. 

The script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster doesn't offer a lot of insight into Rogers' character, but count that as a strength, not a weakness. The film buys all the way into the myth of Rogers, a man too good for this world, who must be harboring some kind of deep, dark secret underneath that friendly veneer, right?

But that's just it: Rogers was a one of a kind, and he represented pure, wholesome goodness. The movie doesn't try to explain him, it celebrates him, since reducing him to a reason for his behavior — it was because of his childhood! — would dull his spiritual magic. 

His effect on the world around him is wonderfully rendered in a scene where he's spotted on the subway and a group of kids begins singing his theme song, "Won't You Be My Neighbor," until eventually everyone on the train, cops included, joins in. That's "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" at its best: it brings together audiences to let down their guards and sing the praises of a beloved cultural giant. Don't be surprised if you find yourself doing the same.   

'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'

GRADE: B

Rated PG: for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language

Running time: 109 minutes 

agraham@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @grahamorama

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