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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

At the Cinemark

(PG)

Grade: A-

About all Tom Hanks had to do to play Mister Rogers was slow down his speech and put on a cardigan sweater – the rest was there already. All of it.

Fred McFeely Rogers married Joanne at 24, and was married 50 years, until death did they part.

Tom Hanks married Rita at 23, and they’ve run off the first 30 years. No one doubts they’ll catch Fred and Joanne in good time.

Now, it’s worth noting that Tom was married for a year, before he met Joanne. One less halo for Tom. Advantage Fred.

But Hanks’ portrayal of Mister Rogers is not a caricature or an impersonation. Rather, the portrayal is inside out, as Hanks finds the humanity and the humility underneath the sweaters. If ever Russian theatre maestro Konstantin Stanislavski needed a poster child for his acting methods, Tom Hanks is the one. Hanks reaches into his own soul to draw upon the parts that match Fred – and there are many.

Blessedly, the script mostly avoids the clichés of Mister Rogers, his sweaters and his puppets.

Instead, the story focuses on what Fred Rogers was like one-on-one. We meet a man who embodies the reverence toward others preached by Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber. We meet a man who, I suspect, would have been close friends with C.S. Lewis, the British gent everyone loved.

The story that allows us to meet Fred Rogers is, at times, a bit contrived, albeit based on fact.

Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a magazine writer for “Esquire” in the throes of a personal crisis. He’s burning out too young. He’s a new dad, but can’t seem to find the joy fatherhood should bring. And he harbors a deep grudge toward his father, who abandoned the family when his wife was dying.

Into Vogel’s life a story comes. His editor assigns him to write a short fluff piece on Fred Rogers to accompany some wonderful photos. Vogel, who fashions himself an investigative journalist, is offended by the soft assignment.

So, he sets out to find a little dirt underneath the cardigans to justify his assignment.

What he soon discovers is that this soft-spoken man is “just about the nicest person I’ve ever met. I just don’t know if he’s for real.”

Whenever Vogel begins to interview Fred Rogers, the tables quickly turn. Mister Rogers doesn’t want to talk about himself, he wants to meet Lloyd. He can sense the turmoil, and wants to understand – and to help.

Vogel adamantly resists the intervention and even walks out of one meeting. But slowly, Mister Rogers finds the hole inside of Vogel and helps fill it up so Lloyd can regain his balance.

The quiet scenes where Rogers and Vogel talk softly are genuine, moving. At one meal, Fred asks Lloyd if he would join in a couple minutes of silence – a Quaker moment, a mindful Buddhist pause. And so, the two sit completely still, heads bowed, camera rolling.

That’s a beautiful, spiritual and patient scene showing how a gentle man helps others – by being silent. As the old saying goes, God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.

The film has a feminine touch, with director Marielle Stiles Heller, dialing down the noise.

We see that same quiet side of Fred Rogers when he meets children on the set, or stops to talk to families on the subway. Never pretentious, always loving.

When we do visit the set of Mister Rogers, the script focuses on a part of the Fred Rogers show not often showcased: His willingness to discuss death and depression with children. Rogers did not shy from those topics, and in fact embraced them honestly, openly.

Kids face difficulties often, so why not give them tools to handle the early bumps in their lives?

The reason this story works, of course, is that Tom Hanks isn’t faking being genuine. When Hanks looks into the eyes of a child, he connects. It’s no performance. And when Hanks, as Fred Rogers, comes to the home of the writer to console him as his dad is dying, the emotions are real.

So, what we end up getting is a portrait of caring man brought to us by a caring man. Simple.

What’s not simple is how such a schmaltzy script worked so well – and that’s thanks to Tom Hanks.

At the core, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a lesson in mindful listening, the art of focusing totally on the one we’re with – silent, attentive and responsive, with no cell phone in sight.

A movie about listening shouldn’t really work.

But it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood when a movie stops shouting, and just quietly invites us in.

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