Tom Hanks leaves us wanting more Mr. Rogers in new film
The ads for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” suggest the movie tells a story of Fred Rogers, the beloved host of the long-running television program. Because Rogers, who died in 2003, was also the subject of the documentary “Won't You Be My Neighbor” in 2018, I was curious what new insight this new account of his life might reveal.
But this narrative approach actually shares little about Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood because the story focuses so much on the conflicts of a fictional investigative reporter assigned to write about this kind television character who teaches so many about so much. While the film offers some glimpses into the magic Rogers creates, it leaves me wanting to know more about Rogers and less about the journalist asking the questions.
Tom Hanks, despite limited screen time, becomes an inspired choice to play the beloved Rogers. This two-time Oscar winner beautifully recreates the vocal rhythm and emotional tone of the character we know from television, starting with those iconic first moments when an opened door reveals a smiling face filled with welcome and care. Hanks brings his trademark spirit to a man sincerely committed to make people feel better about themselves, by the millions through his television program, and one-to-one with people he meets. Even a bitter reporter from a popular magazine.
When this writer, played by Matthew Rhys of “The Americans” and “Brothers and Sisters” on television, reaches out to Rogers, the movie follows how the kindness so clearly communicated on the small screen may be as real in person. But moviemaker Marielle Heller chooses to focus on the reporter’s relationship with his father instead of developing the new connection with Rogers. That leaves Hanks, the actor, with little to do other than occasionally reassure or question. Because Rhys carries a lot of anger toward his cinematic father, the time spent examining this relationship keeps the film from fully developing how Rogers makes such an impact. As a result, the movie never gets to the heart of how this below television star can apply his magic to real life. Because we never get to know why Mr. Rogers cares so much, we miss the true impact of how much he cares.
Still, a portrayal as special as Hanks’ rendition of Rogers deserves to be seen. This remarkable actor, so detailed in his approach to the spirit of the man, helps us see inside Roger’s television world, including what happens backstage with his favorite puppets. If Heller had fully used Hanks’ ability to make us believe in the wonder of his world, we could have taken a magical journey into the lasting gift of goodness. As Mr. Rogers - supposedly on his television program - explains as the movie begins, to forgive is one of the most important gifts we have the power to give ourselves.
Though the movie does leave me wanting more, any time spent with Mr. Rogers and Hanks offers memorable moments. If only Heller had focused on the man who touched so many, instead of inventing a narrative that never feels as real, we could savor a film as touching as the actor playing the role.
Film Nutritional Value: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Content: Medium. Marielle Heller’s look at how television’s Fred Rogers can change lives provides some welcome entertainment for the holidays.
Entertainment: High. Despite limited screen time for Tom Hanks, the actor recreates the magic of Rogers with great detail and authentic spirit.
Message: High. No matter how old we may be, we all have the capacity to work harder to look for the good in every person, every moment, every challenge.
Relevance: High. Heller crafts a challenge for us to look at today’s world, and the challenge we may experience with family members, through Mr. Rogers’ eyes.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your children can have a rich conversation of the ways we all look at the neighborhoods we share.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is rated PG for “strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language.” The film runs 1 hour and 48 minutes.