In Polar Express (2004), Tom Hanks kept urging “Believe!” without specifying what to believe in. Some of that same damnable over-secularization threatens to ruin Hanks’s new film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Hanks plays Fred Rogers, creator and host of the TV series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (aired 1966–2001 on public broadcasting), which taught life lessons to children. The movie re-creates those homilies by artificially re-creating scenes of the show’s videotape and alternating them with the real-life story of optimistic Rogers (Hanks) being interviewed by cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys).
Director Marielle Heller attempts a sensitive, almost spiritual evocation. She intersperses TV-show sets and toylike miniatures among scenes of desolate realism in which pious Rogers is tested by pessimistic Vogel. Rogers looks past Vogel’s sarcasm, almost divining the writer’s private pain. It’s a dramatization of Rogers’s uncanny calm and childlike patience — qualities that modern society distrusts, preferring to put stock in Freudian explanations.
This concept is almost too philosophically large for the kind of movie Heller is making. Scenes where Vogel reveals lifelong resentment of his philandering father (Chris Cooper) apply Rogers’s TV teaching to an adult’s family crisis. But Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster don’t show enough faith in Rogers’s remedies — and not enough interest in their religious origins.
In short, the movie seems wary of faith (it briefly mentions that Rogers was an ordained minister) and settles for secular sentimentality to account for his sensibility and behavior. This not only weakens the film, but it also hobbles Hanks’s characterization.
When Hanks attempts to replicate Rogers’s sangfroid and gentleness, he avoids the remarkably complex mixed feelings of his conman role in The Ladykillers and falls back on Forrest Gump simplemindedness. While Heller strives to show Rogers as a lay Christian, Hanks succumbs to oddity.
I always found it ironic that pop musician David Byrne once referred to Fred Rogers as “creepy” when it is Rogers whom the art-savant Byrne most resembles. Hanks’s misguided performance (not scornful yet neither is it absolutely guileless) hints at the same mistrust as his hollow “Believe!” exhortations in Polar Express.
The film’s title suggests kinship; the lessons Rogers imparts to Vogel suggest forgiveness and spiritual belief. But it is all background to the story of a gloomy Esquire magazine writer who is meant to be the audience’s surrogate: Vogel is a white liberal whose good intentions are signified by his having a black wife and a biracial infant.
With progressive politics as the opiate of Hollywood, there’s no way to find true meaning in Fred Rogers’s life story, reducing it to the Christmas-without-Christ cheerleading. Using Rogers’s TV show as a replacement for religion — as if it merely demonstrated our need for psychoanalysis — fights Heller’s own sensitivity. (She brought sympathy to the larcenous scoundrels of her previous film Can You Ever Forgive Me?) Heller’s most daring tactic occurs when Rogers tells Vogel to “think of all the people who loved you into being” and the movie observes a full minute of silence.
This should be a bravura sequence. Hanks acts it simply, and Rhys’s anguish (he’s like a scared Bill Murray with anger issues) rouses intense neediness. But the moment fails because of a cultural catastrophe: Hollywood does not customarily express spirituality.
Heller based that scene on one of the remarkable moments in last year’s Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? where witnesses to Rogers’s life respond to his call for reflection and gratitude. Doc director Morgan Neville briefly acknowledged Rogers’s faith by his interviewees’ personal testimony. They went beyond Freud.
Neville’s documentary also revealed Rogers’s contempt for TV habits, especially as they infect children — and adults. Neville recounted Rogers’s mission: “We are all called upon to be tikun olam, repairers of creation: to bring joy and light and hope and faith and pardon and love to your neighbor and to yourself.” Rogers insisted on this enlightenment for a medium that regularly fed stupidity, violence, and selfishness to children. He felt that addressing the community of children was a way of addressing the nation.
Heller’s attention to this idea makes her one of the few contemporary female filmmakers to display moral sensitivity above political correctness. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood resists Christian belief yet still promotes secular humanism.