When Matthew Rhys told people he was filming a movie about Mister Rogers, they invariably responded with a pleasant sigh. Then when he revealed that Tom Hanks was playing the television legend, they’d make the same satisfying sound — “aaaaaaw.”
That sweet murmur was heard throughout Toronto on Saturday night as “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” had its world premiere at two of the film festival’s biggest venues. A lovely and persuasive testament to the power of kindness, “Beautiful Day” possesses the same calming balm that Rogers exuded on his PBS children’s show.
Leaving the Elgin Theatre following the evening’s later screening, moviegoers began singing the show’s theme song, echoing a scene in the film. This is a movie you don’t want to let go of too quickly.
“Beautiful Day” is “inspired” by a Esquire feature titled “Can You Say ... Hero?” The 1998 magazine profile focused on Rogers’ remarkable approach to life, ending with writer Tom Junod opening his heart and feeling the grace of God.
In the film, Rhys plays a fictionalized version of Junod, a cynical writer disarmed by Rogers’ openness and decency into healing a broken relationship with his father (played by Chris Cooper).
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” arrives a year after the Fred Rogers documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a well-reviewed box-office hit that was surprisingly overlooked by Oscar voters. That oversight probably had more to do with documentary branch voters’ capricious and clubby ways than the subject matter itself.
Hanks won back-to-back Oscars for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump” in the mid-nineties, but an entire generation has now grown up without seeing him among the nominees. Since his last lead actor nod for “Cast Away” in 2000, Hanks has delivered exceptional work in movies like “Bridge of Spies” and “Captain Phillips.” Voters have looked elsewhere.
As one awards consultant told me three years ago when Hanks was in the conversation for playing the title character in Clint Eastwood’s satisfying “Sully": “Once you have two Oscars like he does, voters feel like that’s enough. Unless you’re Daniel Day-Lewis. And Hanks is low-key; he doesn’t chew the scenery like that.”
Hanks doesn’t grandstand in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Quite frankly, he can’t, as the role requires a preternatural calmness that manifests empathy. When Rhys’ reporter tells Rogers that it must have been difficult for his sons to have such an iconic figure as a father — in an attempt to break down Rogers’ unshakeably peaceful demeanor — Rogers replies, “It couldn’t have been easy on them. Thank you for that perspective.”
During a Q&A following the Elgin screening, director Marielle Heller stressed the challenges of portraying Rogers, pushing back on the idea that Hanks’ work was simply one nice guy portraying another decent fellow.
“To be present and open in every moment, that’s a hard thing to do,” she said, adding that Hanks’ turn had to feel “naked” to work.
The impressive way in which Hanks captures Rogers’ singular charisma is reminiscent of his convincing portrayal of another legend, Walt Disney, in “Saving Mr. Banks.” As was the case for that 2013 film, Hanks, though top-billed, will be campaigned as a supporting actor for “Beautiful Day.”
Hanks is already out there shaking hands. After landing in Toronto, he popped into a local coffeehouse on Friday that had embarked on a 10-day social media campaign to entice him to visit.
“He was so funny and generous,” said shop owner Joelle Murray.
That charm was on full display Saturday night at the Elgin, with Hanks spinning tales, offering insight and revealing how playing Mister Rogers has affected his marriage with Rita Wilson.
“When my wife and I get into it and we’re done with whatever subject matter got us all heated up, I’m now driving her insane because I sing ... ‘It’s good to talk / It’s good to share the things we feel....’”
There’s going to be some serious talk — and feelings — in the wake of this sweet film when it arrives in theaters on Nov. 22.