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Review: Tom Hanks is a treasure as Mr. Rogers in 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'

Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures

Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures

What kind of an asshole do you have to be to give a less-than-positive review to a Mr. Rogers movie?

Luckily for this asshole, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t exactly a Mr. Rogers movie. The film is based on a 1998 Esquire profile written by Tom Junod, who here is fictionalized as Lloyd Vogel ( The Americans’ Matthew Rhys), an emotionally distant investigative journalist assigned to write a brief puff piece about the beloved children’s TV show host.

At first the resistant Vogel can’t believe Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) is truly as kindhearted as he seems. Vogel tries to dig deeper to find some darker truth about the man, but as the two spend more time together, Rogers’ stubbornly persistent benevolence helps Vogel begin to reconcile with his past.

Vogel is struggling as a new father with his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), especially in light of the recent reappearance of his estranged father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). Rogers’ almost superhuman powers of understanding gradually help Vogel chisel through the shell of resentment he’s used to protect himself emotionally after so many years.

In one instructive scene between Vogel and Rogers’ wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), he refers to the preternaturally gentle TV personality as a saint. Joanne tells him she doesn’t like the word saint, because it implies Fred’s goodness is something that cannot be attained by mere mortals. He works hard at being so kind, she says.

If only the movie dug into that process. There are traces of it, including one fascinating moment near the end that hints at the very real, ongoing human challenge of being so open and considerate. Director Marielle Heller provides only the tiniest glimpses of this conflict, however, mostly casting Rogers as a kind of American protestant Dalai Lama dispensing invaluable emotional wisdom.

Hanks is perfect as Fred Rogers in a way that perhaps nobody else alive could be. Maybe it takes an American treasure to play an American treasure, and Hanks is almost certainly the reigning titleholder of the country’s most cherished older white guy. (When he dropped an F-bomb on Good Morning America back in 2012, the whole world instantly gave him a mulligan. Because he’s Tom Effing Hanks.) His performance is so engrossing, it’s hard not to wish the whole movie would follow him. Using Vogel’s story as a way to speak about Fred Rogers’ legacy is an interesting conceit, but it doesn’t get us much closer to a greater understanding of Rogers himself.

Nothing against the talented Rhys, who is aided by a terrific supporting cast, in particular Enrico Colantoni as Rogers’ assistant, the wonderful Watson (of This Is Us), and Cooper doing dynamite work as the thorny but repentant father. This feature film version can’t quite evoke the depth of feeling manifested by the exceptional documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, as evidenced by one particular scene that mirrors the documentary’s most powerful moment but can’t live up to it.

Oh, and Mr. Rogers? If there’s a heaven, you’re definitely there right now. Sorry about saying “asshole” twice.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Director: Marielle Heller
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper
Rated: PG
Theater: Area theaters, now playing