Do we really need another Mr. Rogers movie?
The 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” reminded us what’s missing in our culture today, or at least the social media version of it.
Warmth. Kindness. Empathy. Fred Rogers delivered all of the above.
Fred isn’t the star of “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” technically speaking. He’s the conduit for a grouchy journalist who can’t seem to do anything right. Tom Hanks’ version of the kiddie show legend, a risky bit of casting, more than justifies the extended homage.
Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd, a bitter journalist whose career has seen better days. He’s blessed with a beautiful wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) and child but cursed with a fluff assignment far beneath his chops:
Interview children’s show star Fred Rogers.
Lloyd’s editor reminds him he’s in no shape to turn it down. She means that in more ways than one. Lloyd has never gotten over his calloused childhood, courtesy of his womanizing pa (Chris Cooper).
That relationship damaged his soul, something he takes out on the ones who care for him the most.
So when Hanks’ Fred Rogers gently deflects his questions, over and again, it feels like another cruel joke at Lloyd’s expense. Only he can’t realize the method to Fred’s curious madness.
.@tomhanks is earning rave reviews for playing Mister Rogers in the highly anticipated film ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,’ but he told @GayleKing why he initially turned down the role. https://t.co/gGfofR0zEb pic.twitter.com/pq8qjPa3Ji
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) November 21, 2019
The best actors can generate empathy from curmudgeonly characters, or worse. Think Gene Hackman playing a scoundrel in “Superman” or his grifter role in the lackluster comedy “Heartbreakers.”
It’s a gift that transcends direction.
Rhys lacks that ability in ‘Beautiful Day.” He’s mopey, self entitled and distracted. You wonder why his patient bride puts up with him.
Slowly, his connection with Fred brings him back from the brink. Rhys handles Lloyd’s transformation with attention to the smaller, knowing details. An upturned smile here, a crooked head nod there, gestures that show his heart is opening one molecule at a time.
Hanks’ Rogers could have been disastrous. What’s this uber-famous star doing as a kiddie TV show favorite? The performance is more nuanced than any Oscar-bait impression. There’s a mystery to the real Fred Rogers that tantalizes us ’til this day.
Could he be for real? We’re so used to our idols falling from grace. Hanks captures some of that mystery without filling in all the blanks.
There’s a lovely moment mid film where Fred asks Lloyd for a minute of silence to complete a mental task. “A Beautiful Day” essentially stops cold. The camera zooms slowly, oh so slowly, on Hanks’ face.
Director Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) takes some artistic gambles throughout “A Beautiful Day.” They all succeed, some in exceptional ways. Heller manipulates our nostalgia circuits, too, integrating iconic “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” tropes into the story.
There’s a schmaltzy scene where a group of subway riders serenade Fred Rogers with his show’s theme song. It’s cloying but lump in your throat worthy. TV’s Mr. Rogers fed us goodness, and decency, for so very long.
Turns out we really did need more Fred Rogers on the big screen.
HiT or Miss: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” takes a while to clear its creative throat, but the results are a wondrous look at a TV star’s legacy.