A movie so sweet I’m not sure we deserve it, Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” celebrates the gentle legacy of children’s television host Fred Rogers. Inspired by a 1998 Esquire magazine article by Tom Junod, it’s the story of how a rumpled, depressed and mildly jerky New York writer named Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) became transformed by an unexpected friendship with Rogers (Tom Hanks), whom Lloyd met when assigned to profile him. Through Rogers, Lloyd manages to reconnect with his difficult father (Chris Cooper) and his own newborn son. “I’m gonna get better at this,” he promises the infant.
This is exactly what we’d expected from Fred Rogers, or a cinematic version of him: The man, who spent more than three decades as the creative force and star of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” on public television, was kindness personified. (This subject matter must have been a fascinating lurch for Heller, whose previous film, last year’s wonderful “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” centered on two thoroughly nasty characters.) And while “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is charmingly filmed (I loved the animated depictions of the toy Neighborhood, and the way Heller switches camera formats to give a more old-school portrayal of Rogers’ TV show), it didn’t quite have the emotional wallop I expected. Perhaps last year’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (a movie I, and surely countless other former residents of the Neighborhood, sobbed through) sweetly stole its thunder; perhaps this father-and-son tale is just a little too on-the-nose.
But “A Beautiful Day” is lifted by a fascinating performance at its center, by a charismatic movie star who just happens to also be a great actor. (Watch Hanks at the end of “Captain Phillips,” and tell me he’s not among the best of the best.) Here, he takes his familiar nice-guy persona and slows it down, letting us see how his face lights up upon the possible arrival of a new friend (who else could bring such joyful hope to the line “Someone’s at the door!”), and hear the delicate, gentle music that was a Fred Rogers conversation. Hanks’ words casually loop and stroll, creating embellishments around the long silences that were Rogers’ trademark: he was always listening, always present.
What Hanks is doing looks simple, but making this complicated but childlike man neither caricature nor saint is no easy trick. Watch him, as he accepts an award with a request for 10 seconds of silence, “to think of the people who have loved you into being.” Those 10 seconds seem an eternity, but Hanks holds the gaze steadily, his face emptied of all but patient goodness. The art of acting is, sometimes, a series of tiny miracles, playing out on a face larger than life; the miracle here is that you believe him, joyfully and absolutely.
★★★ “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Tammy Blanchard. Directed by Marielle Heller, from a screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, inspired by the article “Can You Say … Hero?” by Tom Junod. 108 minutes. Rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language. Opens Nov. 22 at multiple theaters.