Thursday, November 21, 2019

Tom Hanks makes a perfect Mister Rogers

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood makes a strong case for kindness.

Part of me that would like nothing better than to tell you that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie about the relationship between TV's Mister Rogers, the nicest man who ever lived, and a journalist named Lloyd Vogel is a sappy wallow in comforting red sweaters and innocuous bromides about how we ought to treat one another -- kindly and with recognition that each of us is special.

You'll find a bit of that in director Marielle Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but the movie goes beyond cliche to address topics that seem charmingly out-of-touch with the current national mood: Sincerity and concern for others.

To keep the movie from becoming as soothing as the treacly piano that opened Mister Rogers Neighborhood, the show that made Fred Rogers famous, the movie supplies a skeptic.

Vogel (Matthew Rhys) reluctantly accepts an assignment to write a short piece on Fred Rogers for Esquire. His editor (Christine Lahti) thinks a soft feature will do the hard-hitting investigative reporter some good.

I haven't mentioned that Mister Rogers is played by Tom Hanks because that information almost seems superfluous. If you think about it, who else could play the soft-spoken TV star who tried to encourage kids to talk about the things that troubled them, as well as the things that made them happy?

Hanks portrays a character who works hard to make sure that he's more interested in others than he is in himself. Insult Mister Rogers and he's likely to respond by thanking you for your perspective.

The movie turns Mister Rogers into Vogel's personal life coach. At his sister's wedding, Vogel gets into a physical altercation with his estranged father (Chris Cooper). At times, Vogel's problems so dominate the movie that Mister Rogers threatens to become a supporting character, the guy who drops in on the story to make sure that everyone's OK.

Susan Kelechi Watson portrays Vogel's wife, a woman who thinks that her angry husband ought to make peace with his father. She's Vogel's live-in Mister Rogers.

Based on a 1998 article by Tom Junod, the film chronicles the growing friendship between a subject and a journalist who doesn't know how to handle Rogers' interest in him. It takes a while for Vogel to be disarmed by Fred Rogers.

Heller makes creative use of the Rogers' sets, weaving them into the real-life drama that often finds its way back to Mister Rogers' TV work and presenting the entire story as if it were one episode from Rogers' show.

The movie insists that Fred Rogers wasn't a perfect human being, just a sincere and conscientious one, although if Fred Rogers ever lost his temper or resorted to profanity, you won't see it here.

The generation of kids who grew up watching Mister Rogers probably will supply the adults who'll love this movie and who happily will return to his beautiful neighborhood. I can't say that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is one of my favorite movies, but why object to a movie that dramatizes the impact of kindness and healing and encourages us to understand that behind a lot of the angry expressions we see, there are often deep wellsprings of hurt.

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