A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood review – Tom Hanks shines as Mr. Rogers

The beloved star is brilliant in Marielle Heller's sweet but broadly drawn film about the iconic children's entertainer

“It’s not really about Mr. Rogers,” says Andrea Vogel (Susan Kelechi Watson), after reading the article her husband, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), has written about beloved TV personality Fred Rogers. “I mean it is,” she adds, “but it’s about you.” She’s talking about the article, of course, but her words extend further. Because at first glance A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might appear to be the definitive Mr. Rogers biopic, but on closer inspection it’s better viewed as a tribute to the man, his ideals, and the lives of the people he touched through the experience of somebody else.

Rogers is not well known outside of the US, where his children’s television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, captured the hearts of millions for over three decades. When Lloyd, a magazine writer with a growing reputation for being difficult (based on real life journalist Tom Junod), is assigned to cover Rogers for an article on “Heroes,” he quickly writes it off as a puff piece. But their meeting spurs Lloyd to dig deeper to try and expose the “real” Rogers, convinced that the calm and optimistic veneer must hide something sinister beneath the surface. “Don’t ruin my childhood,” begs his wife – and Lloyd won’t. Rogers emerges as pure and kind-hearted as his preceding reputation.

Rogers is played by perhaps the only actor who could convince us of this man’s saintly charm: Tom Hanks, himself viewed as a kind of flawless everyman-cum-American ideal. Hanks, brilliantly cast, does not resort to mere impression, but instead tries to find Rogers’ gentle disposition. He’s magnetic whenever he’s on screen, though his performance is both a blessing and a curse. Since this is framed as Lloyd’s story, Rogers is relegated to a supporting character, dipping in and out of the narrative. But the film loses steam whenever the focus is on just Lloyd, whose character is defined almost entirely by a traumatic relationship he shares with his father (Chris Cooper, excellent, and currently in the midst of a minor career resurgence). Of course, Lloyd’s attempts to find flaws with Rogers only serve to expose his own. And that’s the point.

Director Marielle Heller, whose somewhat darker and slightly more interesting Can You Ever Forgive Me?, gave a humanity to infamous literary forger Lee Israel, finds a broader but no less comical approach to the material. She peppers her film with neat creative touches, such as the lovely miniature models standing in for establishing shot that take their inspiration from Rogers’ show. Some dream sequences don’t feel quite as well-suited, tonally, but you admire her efforts to elevate the material from the standard biopic fare. If by the end Rogers remains something of an enigma, his belief that a flawed thing can still be a good thing is exemplified by a sweet-natured film that leads by example.

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