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'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood': Tom Hanks, Superhero of Niceness

The actor courts his first Oscar in decades as beloved kids'-show host Fred Rogers

Rating: PG

Run time: 1 hour 49 minutes

Stars: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys

Director: Marielle Heller

En español | As someone who grew up on Eddie Murphy spoofing Mister Rogers on Saturday Night Live, and preferred silly, snarky Rocky and Bullwinkle to the cuddly coziness of Rogers’ famed WQED show, it took me a while to settle into the unironic gentleness of Tom Hanks, 63, as the soft-spoken TV star.

And yet, in Marielle Heller's odd yet affecting bio-drama based on Tom Junod's 1998 Esquire cover story, Hanks is a beacon of warmth and humanity from the moment he zips up his trademark red cardigan and addresses the audience in character directly through the camera.

Despite Hanks’ star power, and his mastery of all the tics and vocal qualities of his real-life subject, his is essentially a supporting role. He courts a third Oscar, playing Fred McFeely Rogers as the famous, if apparently fluffy, subject of a profile being penned by a younger, cynical, self-involved New Yorker, fictionally called Lloyd Vogel (a coiled Matthew Rhys, 45, from The Americans). Given my profession, I should identify more with the crusty malcontent magazine writer than the optimistic puppet master. But I don't.

The film's beauty is that in comparing and contrasting two artists who could hardly be more different on the surface, the audience discovers how the humanitarian Rogers walks the walk in his daily life. Unlike the trope of the kindly children's TV host who becomes a raging demon once the cameras stop, Fred Rogers becomes all the more heroic in how he chooses to act on the values that define his work. Kindness, compassion, listening, playfulness and, above all, accepting emotions like anger, frustration and jealousy as part of the human experience in order to process them all come into play. It's the older father figure who fosters the younger man, despite Vogel's insistence that it is he who is asking the questions and controlling the interaction.

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Rhys’ Vogel is an egotistical mess from the get-go: selfishly letting his lawyer wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), shoulder the Snuggly carrier with their newborn, fistfighting with his estranged alcoholic father (the always terrific Chris Cooper, 68), and grumbling that a deep-diving journalist should be relegated by his editor (a twinkly Christine Lahti, 69) to write a 400-word piece about a kiddie host. One of the film's weaknesses is how much of a jerk he is for such a huge part of the drama.

While the film charts the privileged writer's gradual awakening and redemption — in a final scene he carries their baby in the Snuggly on his chest as a sign of his evolution — the juice is in the power of empathy as embodied by Rogers. He's not just a shallow, blithe spirit. Instead, he's portrayed as a complicated man who himself struggles to find and nurture the good around him.

The inspirational film recognizes that for Rogers, kindness is a hard-won choice, a daily hill to climb. And that in itself is a beautiful lesson well-dramatized. As we head into the holidays, it's crucial to remember the power of kindness. What a difference a beautiful day in the neighborhood — and a conscious decision to reach out from the heart — can make.