February 23, 2020

Mr. Rogers for Grown-Ups

“Let’s get one thing straight: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a biopic about Fred Rogers. The man who millions of children grew up knowing as Mister Rogers, their TV “neighbor,” was the subject of a strong (and very successful) biographical documentary in 2018. If you’re looking for the details of his life, start there.

What you’ll get from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is much lighter on the backstory, though it’s got plenty of Rogers, too — played, in the year’s most perfect casting, by Tom Hanks. Instead of a retelling of the beloved children’s TV host’s life, this is a delightfully weird drama, framed and shot deliberately to feel like a grown-up episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But it’s Matthew Rhys who stars as Lloyd Vogel, a version of real-life Esquire journalist Tom Junod, who was sent in 1998 to write a few hundred words about Rogers for a puff piece and wound up with a cover story and a changed life.

Those suspicious of sentimentality (and that’s me, too) may find this premise to be too maudlin for words. But watching A Beautiful Day, I became a believer — not just in the tale, but also in director Marielle Heller, whose 2018 film Can You Ever Forgive Me? was an unsentimental and yet compassionate tale of a prickly person changed (at least a little) by a friendship. This film invites us into Rogers’ philosophy that adults would be better people if they tried to remember what it was like to be children. It gently coaxes the audience to filter some very adult emotions through the familiar characters and songs and stories of Rogers’ world. The result is unexpected and unlike any film of its kind, and a testimony to Rogers’ enduring influence, too.”

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