A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn.*
His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettling and perverse monstrosity of a movie.
Who knows Hanks’ motives for playing Mr Rogers. The adreno-angle was not yet widely broadcast, but his degenerate fetish for photographing items of clothing at road sides, his response to accuser Isaac Kappy’s demise, and his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel had all been duly noted. Perhaps he thought someone so universally beloved would clear up any “misconceptions” through osmosis (hey, it earned him a Golden Globe nomination – he even managed a subsequent Oscar nod – although the debit was Ricky Gervais accusing the entire assembly of being paedos).
Or perhaps he actively intended to besmirch the legacy of Mr Rogers, presenting him in exactly the manner he appeared to me here (many do genuinely seem to adore the movie, so go figure). Sully – ahem – those Godfearing, ultra-benevolent values, burying them beneath a smog of gimlet-eyed insincerity and the kind of impression of the man that could doubtless be bested by any diligent seven-year-old. Or their pet turtle.
I first became aware of Mr Rogers, ironically enough, due to Joe Dante’s classic The ’Burbs, a tale warning how we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about very public creeps until it turns out our suspicions are entirely justified. Hanks gives possibly his best performance in the movie – it’s a comic performance, so he naturally nurses no fond memories of the experience – and at one point, he awakes from a Satanic nightmare (hmmm) to the dulcet crooning of Mr Rogers. Latterly, I saw the pretty good 2018 documentary on the man, Won’t You Be My Neighbour? Which, as documentaries often do, made entirely redundant any inclination to dramatise the subject matter and simultaneously spurred Hollywood on to do exactly that.
Besides the difficulty of attempting to mimic genuineness – since acting is itself artifice, you need a very fine thesp indeed to reproduce something so mercurial and inimical to the medium, or simply a very nice one – Hanks, who is nothing if not plump, has been made up to resemble The Hood off Thunderbirds. I can’t stress this enough, but rather than attentive warmth, Hanks exudes clipped, reserved vacuity: a hollow shell. Mr Rogers’ habit of taking photos of his guests only puts one in mind of actual Tom’s (or it his clone’s/twin brother’s now?) depraved habit: “Can I take your picture?” asks Mr Rogers of a small boy. Wouldn’t you rather take one of his distressed, abandoned sock, Tom?
The way in to exploring the Rogers is ostensibly Tom Junod’s 1998 article for Esquire, Can You Say… Hero? The knock-on of this is that the movie isn’t really about Mr Rogers very much; it’s about Junod, reconceived as Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, sporting far too many teeth), and repurposed in a highly Hollywood, demographically-sensitive manner (so Lloyd’s wife Andrea – Susan Kelechi Watson – is black, and wiser and more knowing than her man-child husband in every conceivable way). Lloyd also has daddy issues (Chris Cooper as an alcoholic who walked out on his wife as she was dying, and who is revealed as dying too, so Lloyd can reconnect in a profound, or facile, way).
Nothing about Lloyd’s journey is engaging, but it’s still infinitely more successful than anything depicting Mr Rogers and his world. A scene where a couple of kids on the subway lead the entire compartment in a serenade of his theme tune is presumably designed to evoke the similarly botched Tube sequence in Darkest Hour, but the way Hanks is looking at them, the only wonder is that Mr Rogers doesn’t instantly get mugged and left bleeding and battered on the train car floor. It’s very lucky he didn’t offer a “Can you tell me about your special friend?” the way he earlier did Lloyd.
Inevitably, Lloyd’s life is radically improved by his contact with the inquiring Uncle Tom – “People like you don’t care for humanity, do you?” asks Enrico Colantoni’s Bill Isler, Fred’s business partner at the outset – while any right-minded viewer will have moved across to the opposite side of the room, far far from the TV, in mounting horror at the unwholesome proceedings. Marielle Heller’s batting average was untarnished hitherto – The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? – so I’m sure she’ll bounce back from this travesty. Hanks, though, even if only for this, deserves a long stay in Guantanamo.
*Addendum 23/11/22: The counter is that Rogers was just a very good actor, a much better one than Vril’d Hanks. Donald Marshall alluded to such a scenario: “I watched Mr Rogers and they played terror scenarios on me about him and I wish I’d never watched Mr Rogers now and I would rather he was dead now as I would feel safer“.