What a beautiful day, indeed, when you realize that this movie, this man, existed in this world.
It's sometimes hard to fathom that a man like Fred Rogers existed. His purity, his goodness and his straight-forward candor affected and influenced the lives of millions who watched his PBS show, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," which ran from 1968 through 2001, a total of 912 episodes and specials. At times, he discussed themes of death, divorce, bullying and race - not exactly the topics you'd expect from a children's show - and he never looked to "talk down" to his audience. And by every account, the Fred Rogers off-screen was the same exact man as the Mister Rogers on-screen...America's vulnerable, soft-spoken, friendly neighbor.
There has never been a more perfect match between an actor and his role than to see Tom Hanks embody Fred Rogers in "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." He is the Mister Rogers of Hollywood, the one friendly face and familiar voice that has the ability to invite audiences in, and we're warmed by the comfort he provides us. But making a movie about such a wholesome man could prove challenging..where is the conflict? What's the journey? That's where "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" goes from goodness to greatness.
This is not a biopic of Fred Rogers. Instead, this is the story of fictional investigative journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Ryhs), who is based on the real investigative journalist, Tom Junod, whose 1998 Esquire Magazine article and story acts as the basis for the film. Vogel was not used to doing "puff pieces" and had a pretty bad reputation as a cynic. Begrudgingly, he takes an assignment to right a profile piece on Fred Rogers, still living in the quiet peace and comfort in his Pittsburgh home, with his wife Joanne (Maryanne Plunkett...the real-life Joanne opens the movie with a message directly squared at the audience, thanking them for being a part of Fred's story).
At first, Vogel is quite skeptical of his subject. And who wouldn't be? Here's a guy that doesn't seem to have flaws, a perfect man. Of course, no one's perfect, even Fred Rogers, it's just how you handle and identify your feelings that defines you. It's an understatement to say that Lloyd's father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), has been a terrible father to Lloyd, and that Lloyd is severely damaged by his relationship - or lack thereof - with his father over the course of his life. But Vogel is no match for Mister Rogers' charm, and he soon discovers that this man's philosophies are not just for children, their for all of humanity. Almost through osmosis, Vogel learns compassion, even for those that have inflicted the most amount of pain.
Some of the trappings of this plot may seem a bit clichéd, but this film has a tremendous amount of confidence and director, Marielle Heller, chooses not to play it safe. It's a worthwhile gamble that pays off. She chooses to construct the movie almost as an actual episode of Mister Rogers, with a beginning, a middle an end, and a point. Nostalgia is matched with realistic modern-day perspective. And if there was ever a time where the world needed the wisdom of a Fred Rogers, it's now.
"A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" is a movie that Fred Rogers would have been very proud of, and it's nearly impossible not to love. It's infused with his spirit, and possesses the very assets that were the focus of his entire career and life. Fred's audience was always the most important thing to him, and he had the uncanny ability to focus his attention on just one of us...me to be exact. Wait, you mean you thought he was talking directly to you too? Somehow, this movie engages with its audience in ways that no other movie does, it's aimed specifically at one of us, which makes it a movie for all of us.
For all that Fred Rogers has given us, he continues to give. He was no saint (that would imply that he has no flaws), but his ideals continue to live on. What a gift he was, and how proud he would be to know that this movie exists in this world.
Genre: Drama, Biography.
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes.
Starring: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Christine Lahti, Susan Kelechi Watson, Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena.
Directed by Marielle Heller ("Can You Ever Forgive Me?" "The Diary of a Teenage Girl").
"A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" opens theatrically on Friday, November 22nd, 2019.
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