Let’s go ahead and call Marielle Heller the most skillful director working in Hollywood at the moment, because I can’t think of anyone else who could keep “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” from collapsing into a bath of heartwarming schmoo. It’s the Mister Rogers movie, the one starring Tom Hanks — the world’s nicest fella playing the world’s other nicest fella — and it’s fine, except that you may come out thinking Fred Rogers was even more saintly and less human than when you went in.
“Neighborhood” is based on, and serves as a fictionalized expansion upon, Tom Junod’s 1998 profile of Rogers in Esquire; the article is online and worth the read. Junod is personally present in the piece, and his dramatic stand-in, a New York magazine journalist named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys of “The Americans”), is the center of the movie. Lloyd’s a joyless sort, cynical and hard-driving, and there’s obviously a wounded little boy inside him. When his tartly wise editor (Christine Lahti) sends him to Pittsburgh to interview the host of the public TV series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the stage is set for Lloyd’s inevitable thawing and seeing the light of family forgiveness.
My problem with this movie isn’t that it sells out Mister Rogers. It’s that it turns him into Yoda in a cardigan. He’s Clarence the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but with hand puppets. And I say this with the healthiest of respect for both Fred Rogers and Tom Hanks, even if there’s always perceptual static when a unique famous person plays a different unique famous person. I know Hanks believes he’s just an actor and a regular Joe, and it’s not his fault if a lot of people take him for something more.
Lloyd goes to Pittsburgh with a busted nose, because he has just been in a fight with his ne’er-do-well father (Chris Cooper) at the wedding of his sister (Tammy Blanchard). Seething with decades of repressed fury over the father’s abandonment, the journalist immediately finds himself disarmed by the soft-spoken perceptiveness of his subject. Fred Rogers speaks to everyone as if they were a scared child because he knows they are, and because he knows he’s one, too. The sneakiest trick in his arsenal is to ask people to pray for him and not the other way around. He acknowledges that we’re all grasping after grace.
The dramatic through line of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is thus predictable and rather pat, and it’s the performances and direction that keep it from sinking beneath the waves of toothless veneration. The gifted Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) and her production designer, Jade Healy, have treated this tale as if it were happening within the soundstage universe of Mister Rogers’s show: Every time Lloyd has to fly to Pittsburgh, we cut to a dinky toy plane taking off from an itsy-bitsy handmade airfield. The gambit is charming, and it keeps “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” just this side of fairy tale and anchored, somehow, in our own feelings about childhood.
Did you watch “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”? I did — as an adolescent, coming home from school to an empty house and spending a half hour in Fred Rogers’s garden of gentleness before stepping back into the gray complexities of early adulthood. The makers of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” know we grown-ups often crave a safe place as much, if not more, than our kids, and they’re very savvy about the other adults in this film’s room.
Those include Rogers’s protective producer (Enrico Colantoni) and director (Carmen Cusack); Fred’s wife Joanne, (Maryanne Plunkett, in dodgy old age make-up); Lloyd’s wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), who’s dealing with a newborn and a big baby of a husband; that reprobate of a father (Cooper, his usual wily self), with a careworn new wife (Wendy Makkena). All are flawed human beings and all know the secret that this movie’s Mister Rogers holds out and Lloyd keeps missing: that forgiveness starts with self-forgiveness. (It says something, though, that of the two films opening this week that feature the passing of a parent and any reconciliations thereto, the one that gets you where you live is “Waves.”)
In a couple of scenes, Hanks’s Mister Rogers allows as how his childhood had its traumas and that his parenting of two sons had rough patches. This is all to the good, but “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” still envelops its subject in a halo that renders him not truly of this world. That’s a disservice even Fred himself might have disputed. There’s a slyness to Hanks’s performance that’s partly a matter of physiognomy, the actor’s narrow eyes promising whimsical secrets whereas the real Rogers had wide eyes that signaled openness and curiosity. But it’s also possible that the movie allows Hanks to tap too much into his Gumpish tendencies and render the man he’s playing too pure and simple for this mean old world.
A look at Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is enough to remind a viewer how engaged Fred Rogers could be and was. By contrast, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” comes a little too close to turning him into a magical sprite. That’s a fairy tale that grown-ups may need, but something tells me the children know better.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Directed by Marielle Heller. Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster. Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 108 minutes. PG (strong thematic material, a brief fight, some mild language)