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‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’: Tom Hanks makes a wonderful Mister Rogers, when he’s there

For much of the movie, the cameras focus on the cynical reporter rather than on his iconic subject.

Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, left) meets journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, left) meets journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
TriStar Pictures

As you’d expect, a biopic of the beloved Fred “Mister” Rogers would include a drunken performance of the 1960s pop hit “Somethin’ Stupid,” a wedding brawl, an adult man screaming at his father for abandoning the family at the worst possible time and hallucinatory moments in which puppets and humans interact as equals.

Wait, what?

Hold on. I’m not saying Tom Hanks’ Mister Rogers is at the center of any of these story threads. I’m just saying the movie ABOUT him contains such scenes.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” charts a most unusual course in telling the story of Fred Rogers, the Pittsburgh-based, cardigan-clad, sweet and gentle host of one of the most beloved children’s public television programs ever to enter our living rooms.

At times, I was intrigued and charmed by the bold choices, from the creative visuals to the decidedly adult subplot dealing with heavy domestic issues. Nearly as often, I was frustrated by the long stretches when the character of Mister Rogers was missing from a movie about Mister Rogers.

The talented director Marie Heller (“Can You Forgive Me?”) employs deliberately rudimentary, miniaturized model sets reminiscent of Mister Rogers’ “Land of Make Believe” every time we transition to a new locale. It’s a neat touch, reminding us of the quaint and comfort-viewing experience Fred Rogers delivered for all those years.

Our story begins with the perfectly cast Tom Hanks recreating Mister Roger’s show-opening number: flashing that crinkly-eyed smile, trading his sport jacket for a red sweater, his dress shoes for sneakers — as he sings, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” straight to the camera, as if he were addressing an audience of one.

It’s a tricky performance for one American icon to play another American icon — especially one who was imitated and parodied ad nauseam. Hanks expertly captures Rogers’ calming and measured cadence, his sweet but never condescending persona, his ability to quietly command any room he was in, on or off camera.

In the show-within-the-movie, Mister Rogers shows us a picture board, opening little doors to reveal photos of his friends, including familiar regulars from the TV program.

One door opens to reveal a mugshot-type photo of a disheveled man with a cut and bruises on his face. This is Mister Rogers’ new friend, one Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys).

Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is loosely based on the journalist Tom Junod and his experiences interviewing Mister Rogers for a profile in Esquire magazine. For the rest of the film, we spend just as much (maybe more) time in Lloyd’s world than in Mister Rogers’ real-life neighborhood.

Lloyd is a cynical, anti-social, hard news reporter who bristles at the idea of doing a puff piece.

His editor tells him he doesn’t have a choice. On the list of well-known figures to be featured in a special “Heroes” issue of Esquire, Mister Rogers is the only one who agreed to talk to him.

That’s because Lloyd is a self-centered jerk. It’s a wonder his lovely and patient wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) hasn’t scooped up their newborn baby and left Lloyd to wallow in his miserable, self-pitying cynicism.

Chris Cooper does brilliant work as Lloyd’s father Jerry, who cheated on Lloyd’s mother and disappeared when Lloyd’s mother was stricken with terminal cancer. Now, two decades later, Jerry resurfaces, seeking to make amends with Lloyd.

What does any of this have to do with Mister Rogers?

Glad you asked. Over the course of several meetings, Mister Rogers asks Lloyd nearly as many questions as Lloyd asks Mister Rogers. Just as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” often addressed serious and dark subjects, with the host using songs and puppetry and straight, simple talk to help child viewers understand their feelings, the “real-life” Mister Rogers in this movie gently but firmly gets Lloyd to come to terms with his deep-seated issues.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” can be unabashedly corny, for example when a multigenerational crowd on a subway car serenades Mister Rogers with his famous theme song. We keep waiting for the moment when Mister Rogers drops the act and admits he’s not the same person as the character he plays on television — except it appears he really WAS the same person whether he was on a soundstage, patiently greeting fans or at home.

Hanks does an amazing job of reminding us this saintly man was not a saint. He had a bit of a temper. There were times when his sons rebelled and nearly shut him out. (As the film aptly points out, having Mister Rogers as your father could be pretty cool but also quite the burden.)

With so much time devoted to Lloyd’s world, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” doesn’t have room for any sort of standard arc about Fred Rogers. His childhood, how the show came to be, what he did during his three-year “retirement” before bringing back Mister Rogers.

We appreciate Mister Rogers even more after seeing this film, but I’m not sure we really got to know him any better.