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Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

LACEY TERRELL/Sony Pictures

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  • Directed by Marielle Heller
  • Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster
  • Starring Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson and Tom Hanks
  • Classification PG; 108 minutes

rating

3.5 out of 4 stars

If you are coming to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood expecting a detailed dramatization of the life and career of Fred Rogers, from humble children’s television entertainer to patron saint of a nation, then you should look elsewhere. Perhaps in the direction of last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, in which director Morgan Neville deftly traced Mister Rogers’s legacy with that of U.S. pop culture.

If that truth makes you sad – if, say, you were counting on softening the stress of the holiday season with two full hours of patented Tom-Hanks-as-Mister-Rogers affability – then A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will make you very sad indeed. But then again, you might become just as blue – if not more weepy – over what director Marielle Heller’s film actually delivers. In a good way. A way that Fred Rogers himself would surely approve of.

Read more: Director Marielle Heller wants us all to be better people, just like Fred Rogers

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Heller’s film doesn’t focus on Mister Rogers exactly, but uses the man – or, at first, the idea of the man – as a springboard for examining the joys and pains of family, the poison that is suppressing your feelings, the constant emotional rigour of operating in this world. It is a quiet, strange and challenging approach that is so divorced from the expectations we place on today’s “adult” dramatic cinema that its mere existence should be celebrated. What’s more impressive is that Heller actually pulls off the assignment, producing a film of deeply meditative energy, of profoundly lingering feeling.

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Very loosely adapted from Tom Junod’s 1998 article for Esquire magazine, “Can You Say ... Hero?”, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood focuses on Hollywood’s favourite kind of journalist – jaded, cynical and unshaven. (Okay, this isn’t an entirely inaccurate depiction, but c’mon guys.) Junod stand-in Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is struggling to balance his magazine work with life as a new father, and failing in all directions. Part of this is due to Lloyd’s ugly estrangement with his own father (Chris Cooper) and part due to Lloyd being the sort of emotional and intellectual narcissist who walks across New York as if every professional and personal encounter was a chance to get into a fist fight. For the film’s first half-hour, it seems like Heller is offering a feature-length treatise on the old story of how if you meet a jerk in the morning and then a jerk in the afternoon and then a jerk in the evening, perhaps ... you are, in fact, the jerk? But she then opens up Lloyd’s world, and ours, to something far more interesting and revealing.

Matthew Rhys, best known for FX spy series The Americans, stars as journalist Lloyd Vogel.

LACEY TERRELL/Sony Pictures

After being assigned to bang out a short puff piece on Fred Rogers – Christine Lahti plays Lloyd’s editor with the kind of briskly dismissive attitude that might trigger PTSD in any working journalist, though it’s pure fantasy that Esquire would have ever let a woman run the place – Lloyd heads to Pittsburgh to interview the aging TV host. (Another bit of only-in-the-movies, or perhaps late-1990s journalism-industry escapism: Lloyd is given a full travel budget to file a mere 450 words.)

By this point in time, Fred is so beloved a cultural figure that children and police officers break out into the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood theme song after the icon is spotted in public. The film may assume that we all know, and revere, the legendary kindness of Mister Rogers – the absolute niceness that bathes the man in a golden glow – but it doesn’t coast on that familiarity. Instead, as Lloyd and Fred get to know each other, Heller and her screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster ask us to confront the question of what exactly “niceness” is and how a public persona built on such a thing can seep out to everyone in the real world, to everyone who only knows such a benevolent energy from a man they watched inside a box. This isn’t a movie about a famous figure and what made him uniquely him, but about how a famous figure can leave the rest of the world a better place than he found it, if that is what he chooses to do.

That idea is a gamble on its own, but Heller frequently doubles down. There is a moment mid-way through the film where Lloyd and Fred sit down for lunch at a busy restaurant, and the latter asks his prickly inquisitor if there is “somebody who loved you into existence, who loved you so much that you became who you are right now?” Instead of cutting to Lloyd looking baffled, Heller keeps the camera squarely on Hanks, and then the film pauses for a full half-minute as the restaurant extras – and, it’s assumed, the film’s audience – freeze in silence to contemplate the question. There are interstitial sequences depicting Lloyd’s travel with toy planes and cars, as if he were stuck inside the cardboard sets of Mister Rogers’s tiny neighbourhood. And there is the film’s framing device, a surreal dream sequence that edges into something sinister.

Meanwhile, Heller’s muted aesthetic instinct, which served her so well on last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, serves up a world that warms up to Fred Rogers every time the man makes himself present.

Hanks, not surprisingly, is perfectly cast. Although it’s tempting to say the actor isn’t doing much acting at all – a case of one of America’s Nicest Men playing another – there is a careful pace and tone to Hanks’s delivery, as if he’s savouring the man’s infinite capacity for compassion with every word. Of course, Fred Rogers wasn’t actually heaven-sent, and Hanks also makes room for the pangs of self-doubt that any mortal might endure.

Susan Kelechi Watson is given a thinly sketched role as Lloyd's wife Andrea.

LACEY TERRELL/Sony Pictures

Less convincing is Rhys. Best known for his work on FX’s spies-in-disguise drama The Americans – where he played a man who tries to convince himself that he, too, is an all-American Hero – the actor eventually grows into Lloyd’s very particular misanthrope. But it does take a good while for Rhys to inject empathy into a man clearly intended to contain more than at least a little.

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Meanwhile, Susan Kelechi Watson, cast as Lloyd’s wife Andrea, is stuck playing what’s essentially a non-character. She’s the wife, the mother, the Mister Rogers fan, and that’s it. Maybe it’s not surprising that an Esquire feature should inspire such a thinly sketched woman, but there were easy remedies to be taken, should anyone have desired. Something tells me that Mister Rogers would have appreciated that, too.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens Nov. 22

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