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The Nicest Living Man Plays The Nicest Non Living Man

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(Dir.
Marielle Heller, 2019)

Firstly,
Tom Hanks, despite the recent revelation that they’re related, looks and sounds
nothing like Mr. Rogers. Yet that doesn’t matter much because within the first
few minutes, the nicest living man in the world convincingly embodies the
nicest non living man with winning grace and aplomb.

But
the real protagonist of this film by Marielle Heller (DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL,
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?) is journalist Lloyd Vogel, portrayed by Matthew Rhys,
mostly known for his role as a Russian spy on the FX series, The Americans.

Set
in the late ‘90s, Lloyd, who is a fictionalized version of writer Tom Junod, is
given the assignment by of profiling Mr. Rogers for an issue of Esquire about
American heroes. Considering it a “puff piece,” Lloyd is hesitant about doing
the piece on someone that “plays with puppets for living.”

Lloyd’s
editor (Christine Lahti) insists and soon the cynical scribe is the orbit of
the popular PBS children’s TV host with trips back forth from New York to
Pittsburgh (where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was taped), and many calls from
Fred Rogers to Lloyd, with even Lloyd’s wife Andrea (This is Us’s Susan Kelechi
Watson) getting some phone time with her childhood idol (Andrea: “Oh, God –
Lloyd, please don’t ruin my childhood”).

While
folks going in should not expect a dramatized version of last year’s excellent
documentary WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOOR?, there are some recreations of moments
from Mr. Rogers’ long-running show including the funny scene in which the host
struggles with setting up a tent. Also, FORREST GUMP-style, Hanks’ Mr. Rogers
is inserted into clips with Arsenio Hall and Oprah Winfrey.

A
downside to the whimsical, life-affirming message of the movie is a subplot
concerning Lloyd’s blustery estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper). It’s a
clichéd premise, done to death, with Cooper desperately trying to make amends
with his son, and us knowing that Mr. Rogers’ teachings will lead the way to
love.

But
there are several nice touches that somehow make elements like that fit in the
framework like the use of miniature for nearly every exterior shot in the
tradition of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’s colorful models.

The
edgy friendship which turns warm and fuzzy between Hanks’ Fred Rogers and Rhys’
Lloyd Vogel is endearingly well acted. They may be in the neighborhood of
make-believe, but there are some touching human moments even in the well worn
father and son side story.

With
its largely successful attempt to show how Mr. Rogers interacts from people in
the world away from his show, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is a nice
companion piece to the documentary. It’s also a mediation on kindness, and how
much the world needs more of it now.


More later…