A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD Challenges You To Accept And Give Basic Human Kindness

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Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, opening everywhere November 22, 2019

The first thing you'll need to know about Tom Hanks' latest film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, opening everywhere November 22, 2019, is that it's not a biography of Fred Rogers, the widely beloved star of the long-running children's television program Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. That was covered perfectly by last year's Academy Award nominee Won't You Be My Neighbor. This film features Hanks as Rogers, but the story is not about the man. The story is about impact Mr. Rogers had on the people who were fortunate enough to meet him.

The film, directed by Marielle Heller, is based on a brilliant feature story by Tom Junod which ran in the November 1998 issue of Esquire magazine. Names have been changed, but Junod has said in interviews over the years that he actually was going through a very difficult and angry time in his life when he was assigned to profile Mr. Rogers. Junod didn’t appreciate the assignment, but he had developed a reputation of being something of a celebrity beat bad boy, often sharing facts and tales that some celebrities didn’t want to share with the public. In the movie, his name is Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys. Vogel begrudgingly set off from New York to Pittsburgh, where Mr. Rogers and the Land of Make Believe reside.

Their first meeting is relatively short, and Vogel doesn't find Rogers very forthcoming. The man was notoriously uncomfortable with personal accolades, yet perfectly happy to meeting throngs of adoring fans in public. Vogel soon finds himself commuting regularly between NY and Pittsburgh, meeting Rogers on the set of his show or in private. Between visits, Vogel is struggling to get his life in order. His wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) is taking care of their newborn son, and his estranged father (Chris Cooper) gets Vogel’s blood boiling at the slightest provocation. Rogers frustrated the writer early on, but as their meetings continued he began to find comfort in his presence. When his life take a sudden dramatic turn, Vogel draws on his writing subject as a source of strength, realizing at last that Mr. Rogers may in fact be one of the genuinely nicest people on Earth.

Tom Hanks hasn't made a bad film in decades (one might argue that any less-than-sterling films in his oeuvre weren't his fault anyway) and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is no exception. Hanks doesn't attempt to do a perfect imitation of Rogers, which is for the best. He sounds somewhere between Rogers, President Jimmy Carter and a higher pitched yet softer spoken Forrest Gump, but the Rogers vibe comes through strong. In an ironic twist, it has been reported in the Washington Post that Hanks found out just a few days before his film opens that he is actually related to Mr. Rogers—they’re sixth cousins, twice removed (I think—I can never keep all of that straight). I would have to think that Rogers would be just as proud and excited to learn that fact as Hanks no doubt is.

Rhys, best known for his television roles on Brothers and Sisters and The Americans, also does a fine job, playing Vogel as hard to like, quick tempered and broken by intense stress, much of which is his own doing. His relationship with "the kids’ show guy" and the way Rogers always brought out the best in everyone is clearly conveyed through Rhys. Conveying personal growth is no easy feat for an actor, but Rhys is able to show the life-changing effect of Tom Junod’s relationship with Rogers in a way that doesn’t feel first, sudden, or contrived.

If there's any "problem" with the movie it's that it is a very sweet film. Rogers would be the first to admit he wasn't perfect, but he was ridiculously nice. At a time when Congress is holding impeachment hearings, one of baseball's popular franchises is in the spotlight for a variety of scandals and people go to extremes on social media to point out your every flaw and failure, niceness of this magnitude is almost incomprehensible. Your enjoyment of the film is likely going to be subject to your ability to accept Rogers ' cavity-causing sweetness. The thing to keep mind when you watch it is that most if not all of it is based on the presumably true accounts of Rogers relationship with Junod and much of the original story from the Esquire was more or less directly recreated in the film. Sure, there's bound to be some creative license here and there, but Fred Rogers was a uniquely kind man who's fame only made him more determined to live up to his own high-set bar. Like Junod in real life and Vogel on the big screen, you'll just have to learn to accept it. And maybe once you have, you’ll consider passing a little kindness yourself. We could all use it. If you feel compelled to wear a cozy cardigan and loafers while you do it, it might just be a beautiful day indeed. 

It's not beyond the Land of Make Believe to think that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might make even the most jaded moviegoer a little bit nicer too. I'm sure Hanks doesn't mind helping extend Mr. Rogers legacy at a time when we could all use more pure "nice" in the world, no matter how sweet it may be. Personally, I can’t even conceive of Mr. Rogers being any other way. 

4.5 / 5.0