This movie has a lot of things going against it. First, we just had that terrific documentary about Mr. Rogers (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) last year. Second, this movie is only 25% Mr. Rogers, it’s 75% about the Esquire journalist doing a story [I’m guessing at this point, Fred Rogers would hold up a pie chart to teach kids about percentages].
Third, as much as we all love Tom Hanks, he doesn’t look or sound like Mr. Rogers. I kept thinking he was going to say things like “Hello boys and girls, this is my volleyball friend. His name is Wilson. Can you say Wilson?”
Now, two of my favorite parodies are Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live doing Mr. Robinson. The other parody few people know about. It’s on a National Lampoon record from the mid-70s, and Bill Murray (or maybe Christopher Guest) plays a bass player in a rock band. Harry Shearer is Mr. Rogers, trying to interviewing him while he has a hangover and is devouring an Egg McMuffin.
The reason I bring those two parodies up is because Hanks would’ve been just fine in a red cardigan, slipping off his dress shoes, if it were merely an SNL skit. For an entire movie, it just took me out of the picture every time he popped up (which surprisingly, isn’t as often as you’d think, in a film with this title).
Esquire writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, The Americans) is assigned a puff piece profile that he’s not happy about. He’s used to writing scathing stories about his subjects, and it seems like his editor is at her wits’ end.
He’s got a beautiful wife (Susan Kelechi Watson from This is Us) and a cute baby. He also has daddy issues, since pop bailed on the family while mom was dying in a hospital. Dad shows up for a wedding, and proceeds to get drunk. I credit the director for not going over the top with his behavior in that scene. He was just drunk enough that the son has the right to get angry, and things escalate. On a side note, dad is played by Chris Cooper and we see him get up and belt out a version of Somethin’ Stupid. That’s almost worth the price of admission.
When Lloyd shows up in Pittsburgh to interview Mr. Rogers, the tables are turned. Rogers interviews him about the shiner on his face. They end up meeting a few more times, and it’s surprising how moving those moments are. At a restaurant, when Rogers implores him to give a minute of silence, and think about the good things his parents have done for him. Another time, it’s a subway ride where fans break into the Mr. Rogers theme song. And at one meeting at a hotel, when Mr. Rogers tries introducing Lloyd to his puppets, he splits. That makes a lot of sense, as one of the things I always found odd about Mr. Rogers is how he never seemed to be able to act like an adult with other adults. Even as a kid, I didn’t care for his show (although I loved Sesame Street). My daughter also wasn’t a fan. Yet, what he did for millions and millions of families, is just wonderful. Not just on the air, but his visits with children on the set and at hospitals.
Rhys showed vulnerability and his facial expressions were perfect at conveying just the right emotion. I did feel like the father character felt forced. Perhaps that’s just because so many films have covered the absent father looking for redemption late in life. Cooper, as usual, gives a solid performance.
The characters in this movie often felt like no people I’ve ever met. The way the sister acted, the editor, everyone. They’re also rather boring to watch at times. With a wife that’s a lawyer, a new baby, and a writer that grills people like a 60 Minutes reporter — perhaps there should’ve been a little something more.
Cinematographer Jody Lee Lips (Manchester By The Sea) does a great job taking us into the crowded studio of a public access TV show (creators from the original show were brought in for set design). It’s always fun to see the behind-the-scenes process.
The script felt like a first draft, and it was in real need of a rewrite. Rhys and Hanks do a lot to lift the subpar dialogue.
One creative thing done in the film helped with one of my pet peeves. I hate when someone flies somewhere in a movie, and we see the graphic of an airplane going from one state to the other, with lines underneath it on a map. As if we needed to see the path from L.A. to New York. What they did with this, was show the miniature city, and a toy plane taking off, à la Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The score is done by Nate Heller (the director’s brother who has done all her movies). He’s a former local boy who went to UCSD and was in the local band Wendy Darling.
The movie gets another half star for using songs from Tracy Chapman, Cat Stevens, and Nick Drake.
This is the third movie from Marielle Heller (all dealing with writers). The Diary of a Teenage Girl made my top 10 list, and Can You Ever Forgive Me ? (Melissa McCarthy) was pretty good. Although this movie is a mixed bag, I’m anxiously looking forward to her fourth film.
My wife and I were both a bit disappointed by this, but almost all the other critics are praising it.
2 ½ stars out of 5.