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A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Fred Rogers was by any measure a remarkable man. He was the subject of a superb documentary last year that won a large and appreciative audience. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood doesn’t reiterate the same information and offers instead a canny but irresistible story of its own. Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel, a magazine writer who gets an unwelcome assignment from his editor at Esquire: a profile of Mister Rogers. He wears his reputation as an investigative journalist like a badge of honor and bristles at the thought of this gig. His first brush with Rogers only confirms what he suspected: the man is too good to be true.

This is the key to Neighborhood’s success: Rhys’ character mirrors our own doubts and questions. How on earth does Mister Rogers navigate in the real world as a husband, father, and entertainer? And how can he maintain his integrity in the world of television—even public television? Screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster use Vogel’s skepticism as a rapier to cut through elements of doubt and convince the reporter while simultaneously convincing us of Mister Rogers’ genuine goodness and quiet valor.

I can’t imagine who could play the revered television host better than Tom Hanks, himself a beloved figure. Movies always require a suspension of disbelief, but Hanks’ perfect impersonation of Fred Rogers makes it easy to swallow. If there were any outward signs of cynicism in Hanks’ DNA we might have a harder time of it.

Director Marielle Heller, who fared so well with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a very different biographical drama, artfully mixes recreations of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with genuine footage from that long-running PBS series. And if the transition of Rhys’ character from a place of distrust to a true believer is predictable, the sincerity of the performance more than compensates for it.

Wouldn’t we all like to have a Fred Rogers in our life? This lovely film allows us to indulge in wish-fulfillment, which is something movies do so well. We could use a little more of it these days.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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