The actual definition of "home" may be a household of four walls, a roof and, according to local realtors, a steadily rising price tag. That said, a more figurative idea of "home," particularly as we approach another holiday season, is a bit more priceless. True, it may not be the place where you were born, raised or wed. More importantly, it's a haven fortified by benevolence, not bricks, with a foundation of solicitude, not stone. Which brings us to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film that invites us back home. Not to our homes of brick and stone, but to the homes where our hearts reside and souls are nourished. Simply put, I have never felt more at home in a cinema than during those 100 glorious minutes of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
The door swings open to a familiar cozy living room. The jacket comes off; a warm cardigan goes on, and dress shoes are swapped for a pair of comfy sneakers. Yes, we're home again, and it's time to once again have a heart-to-heart with Mister Rogers. Sigh. Through the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, when so many of us, young and old, grappled with a growing array of difficult issues and, all the while, felt sorrowfully misunderstood, Fred Rogers took the time to listen, understand and connect with us.
"Seriously, Fred Rogers was beloved in the eyes of those who watched him, particularly at that core time when they needed somebody to explain the world in a calm and almost quiet kind of way," said Tom Hanks, whose Oscar-winning career undoubtedly led him to one of the most obvious casting choices in the history of film. But, it's not as if Hanks becoming Mister Rogers was as simple as his donning the cardigan.
From the very beginning of making A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, producers wanted only one person to play Fred Rogers—Hanks. Their only problem was that Hanks had read the script several times, but had passed on the project, indicating that he didn't need to play another historical character. Thank goodness Marielle Heller came on board to direct (and goodness has everything to do with her participation).
"Tom and I developed a bit of a relationship over the years. He had seen my first movie (2015's Diary of a Teenage Girl), and we had been trading scripts back and forth and keeping in touch for a few years," said Heller just prior to her film's world premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. "So, when I came on board as a director for this movie, the producers told me, 'Listen, he doesn't want to do it, but Tom Hanks was always our dream for playing Mister Rogers.' I said, 'Well, I have a relationship with him. I mean, I could just call him, send him the script, and see what happens.' I think a week later he was, 'Okay, I'll do it.'"
Hanks, who sat nearby intently listening to Heller, quickly added that he was a big fan of her work (including the wonderful Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and had been looking for an opportunity to work with her.
"She very specifically came back to me with a different perspective on the power and the force of Mister Rogers as opposed to just another film plot," said Hanks. "I just knew that she was coming at this with, 'This is the red dot of what this movie is,' and that 'red dot' is a chosen power of empathy."
And therein lies the reason A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is head and shoulders elevated well above any previous expectations—and let's face it: Those expectations must have been extremely high. Come on: Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers? It has to be great, right? So I'm happy to report that it's an immensely entertaining film that surpasses the biopic genre. Based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Rogers and journalist Tom Junod, it's a timely story of kindness triumphing over cynicism. Junod (a rather fine Matthew Rhys), was a jaded magazine writer assigned by Esquire to craft a profile of Rogers at a time when Junod's personal life was unraveling. Ultimately, Junod overcame his skepticism and rediscovered love for self and others with a bit of help from our most beloved neighbor. I've previously written about my own brief visit with Fred Rogers when I was working in Pittsburgh in the 1980s ("Seeing is Believing," June 20, 2018). Suffice it to say, Mister Rogers made me feel as if I was the most important person in the world to him in the time that we spent together. In retrospect, I concluded that beyond his extroverted kindness and soft-spoken-ness, his genius was in looking at people for who they were, and what they needed and ministered the truth of love.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the sole film of 2019 that I can recommend to any breathing soul on the planet. One final tip: See it with someone who could use a little more love in his or her life. You know, anyone.