It’s hard to know exactly what Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, would think of the world today. The ideals of a man who lived for kindness, for slowness, for L-I-K-I-N-G you “exactly and precisely as you are” feel like they might burn up on contact with the frenzied, toxic atmosphere of 2019.
Maybe that’s why one of the first scenes in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood seemed to elicit the reaction it did from the audience at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere: a sort of collective, happily gratified sigh as the little red cable car toodled its way across the diorama town of the show’s original opening credits.
Heller’s film isn’t a standard Rogers biopic, in the way of last year’s acclaimed documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Instead, it’s told through the lens of a real-life journalist named Lloyd Vogel, a proud misanthrope who visibly blanches when the assignment comes in to profile the iconic children’s television host for a 1998 issue of Esquire devoted entirely to heroes.
Vogel is played by Matthew Rhys, who is very good, though other actors might have been great in the part too; it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone but Tom Hanks in Rogers’ shoes (or the sneakers, of course, that he famously changed into every time he walked into Neighborhood’s door). Across the surface of his own indelible Hanks-ness, he layers Rogers’ own enduring traits: the thoughtful pauses; the slow-blooming smiles; the speech cadences that seem to run at some kinder, gentler RPM.
As the story opens, Rhys’ Lloyd is not a happy guy; newly a first-time father, he’s also so estranged from his own dad (a craggy, dissolute Chris Cooper) that their unexpected reunion at his sister’s wedding takes only a few sullen words to turn into a fistfight. He’s the kind of man carries his anger around like an cudgel, wielding it at his wife (This Is Us’ Susan Kelechi Watson), his editor (Christine Lahti), and when he finally meets him at a TV studio in Pittsburgh, his subject, too.
If the first half feels like it could be subtitled The Man Who Was Mean To Mr. Rogers, the movie — or rather, its muse — soon finds its way to the soft, wounded parts Lloyd has worked so hard to scab over. Hanks plays Fred as he lays: a sort of secular Buddha in a red knit cardigan whose gently probing questions and Zen proclamations work as a slow dissolving agent on Lloyd’s resistance.
It’s says more about the audience than its subject, maybe, that a man like Rogers is so hard to take at face value; could anyone really be that kind, all the time? Hanks does allow a few cracks to show: a cutaway look; a rare admission of his own family’s struggles; a noisy encounter with the low end of a piano. And Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) steers studiously clear of children’s-show shine in the visuals too, shooting it all in a kind of textured, melancholy half-light.
Her minor-key storytelling may not be what viewers hoping for either hagiography or exposé will expect from Neighborhood; it’s a much quieter, less conclusive movie than that. But nearly impossible not to L-I-K-E, exactly as it is. B+
(A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and will be in wide release Nov. 22)