He’s been called saint, he’s been called savant, but maybe Fred Rogers, child whisperer extraordinaire, was just an empath functioning on an abnormally deep level. (An empath, explains Google, is “a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual”.)
A detailed account of Mr. Rogers’s extraordinary life was given in last year’s prize-winning documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” yet here we are again, this time watching “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a fictionalized account of a friendship the television personality developed with a journalist, Tom Junod.
Best known for taking down celebrities in hit pieces for Esquire magazine, Junot didn’t expect much when he traveled to Pittsburgh in the late 1990s for an interview with “the guy with the kiddie show.” Least of all did he expect that the snappy 400-word mini-bio he was sent to write would develop into a huge, heart-warming 10,000-word cover story, the much-admired “Can You Say… Hero?”
The magazine piece was part Mr. Rogers, part Tom Junod; the jaded journalist had met, if not God, then certainly one of His earthly minions, and he wanted to explain to the world the magic of true kindness. The article may well have salvaged Tom Junod’s professional life – he had caused Esquire a heap of legal trouble by a near-outing of Kevin Spacey years before the actor was ready to come out – and it saved Junod’s personal life if we are to believe “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” The movie is a blend of the magazine piece, Junod’s memories of Fred Rogers, and a screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster.
Fresh off last year’s successful “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (three Oscar nominations), director Marielle Heller cast Tom Hanks, the patently Nicest Guy in Hollywood, to play Fred Rogers, the absolutely Nicest Guy in Television.
It almost sounds too perfect, but fear not – Tom Hanks is just right. He is not imitating Mr. Rogers, nor mimicking him, the way Eddie Murphy did so deliciously on SNL. Hanks creates an illusion of the icon he portrays, which means your eyes see Tom Hanks, but your heart feels Mr. Rogers. Yes, Tom Hanks is that good.
He may be nominated, and even win, a third Oscar, but he would be competing in a Supporting category. The lead of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” belongs to the journalist; the movie is his story about coming to terms with himself, his work, and his family, with the unexpected help of Mr. Rogers.
Welsh actor Matthew Rhys (you know him from “The Americans”) plays Junod, who for some reason is given a different name in the film, Lloyd Vogel. Susan Kelechi Watson plays his wife, Andrea (in real life, she’s Janet), and Chris Cooper is the ornery dad. Other changes: there is a needlessly ramped-up hostility between Rhys and Cooper’s characters, but it makes for good side-drama.
The big conflict, the one we care about, is the one that Junod/Vogel creates between himself and his subject, Mr. Rogers. Gently, yet with unfailing determination, Mr. Rogers turns the tables on the journalist, starts interviewing him, applying the same, simple language he has honed for decades on his “kiddie” show. Long pauses for contemplation – necessary when communicating with a child, but uncomfortable for an adult to handle – and the journalist is bested at his own game.
Breaking the fourth wall in movies – this is when an actor addresses the viewer – has been done for more than a hundred years. Chaplin did it, Oliver Hardy, Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen… comedians all, who enjoyed quick winks at their audience. The way the concept is employed by Marielle Heller is unusual:
A very straight-faced Mr. Rogers gives his new friend Lloyd a little comfort-talk, topping it with, “Would you just take, along with me, a minute, to think of the people who have helped you become who you are?” He grows silent, and Tom Hanks’s eyes moves from looking at Matthew Rhys to looking, no, staring, hypnotically, into my face, and yes, Tom Hanks made me think of, and miss, long-gone people. Scary and weird!
With a different cast, a different director, and different writers “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” could easily have gone off the rails, and ended up as sanctimonious blubber. Make no mistake, this is a Kleenex-driven drama, but it earns its tears honestly. It’s a lovely tribute to Fred Rogers about the most precious gift there is – enduring friendship.