It sounds contrived. Tom Hanks playing Mister Rogers? The children’s TV host who rocked the red cardigan? It shouldn’t work, but it uncannily does.
In Mary Heller’s tender A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood any hagiography of the entertainer comes surprisingly restrained, with interpretation of the man refreshingly human. In fact, rather than deliver a by-the-numbers bio-pic, it instead avoids the trappings of a bio-pic altogether.
Instead, the story centres on Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel, a complex investigative reporter who has been begrudgingly sent on a 400-word puff piece profiling the American icon.
Slowly but surely the film work its magic, with Vogel’s cynicism quickly subdued by a more layered celebrity than the hokey Mister Rogers persona on TV.
Continually subverting the film’s bubbling sentimentality, director Heller frequently opts for bold and surrealist touches throughout. In one example, by adopting a motif of model toys to represent the skylines of Pittsburgh and New York, the choice doubles nicely as pure nostalgia while also linking fantasy to reality.
Plagued by contempt towards his estranged father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), Vogel’s numerous meetings with Rogers enriches him to forgive and forget. It’s the exact innate wisdom Hanks imparts on American children each week, demonstrating through the film’s smart screenplay that Fred Rogers was a universal communicator through-and-through.
Bolstered by two superb performances, Welshman Matthew Rhys effortlessly slips into Vogel’s gruff New York exterior while Hanks’ masterful portrayal moves beyond mimicry, ranking amongst his finest work since Forrest Gump.
Bring a tissue, you may need it.