TIFF review roundup: Tom Hanks is the Mr. Rogers we need in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

A kinder, gentler true-life fable, the Mr. Rogers-inspired “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival over the weekend and critics in attendance mostly fell under its enchanting empathetic spell.

Directed by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me”) and starring Tom Hanks as the beloved children’s TV host, the film is based on a true story, pairing him with Matthew Rhys as a sullen and bitter “Esquire” writer who is tasked with doing a profile of this upbeat icon and his sunny outlook on life. The movie itself is somewhat predictable but most credit goes the two  stars for elevating the material.

Critic Eric Kohn of IndieWire warns that this is one of those films whose effect sneaks up on you without resorting to cheap, maudlin devices: “Marielle Heller … excels at pulling heartstrings from sturdy foundations, injecting smart and insightful details into material that could easily default to sentimentality. .. Heller works backward by digging into gooey material and mining for substance in surprising places.”

Owen Gleiberman of “Variety” admits he had doubts about whether Hanks, his favorite actor, would be “gentle enough” to play Rogers. But after seeing the result, he asks: “Why did I ever doubt that Tom Hanks could be my neighbor?”

He goes on to say, “In ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,’ Hanks isn’t just good — he’s transporting. He takes on Mister Rogers’ legendary mannerisms and owns them, using them as a conduit to Rogers’ disarming inner spirit. He makes you believe in this too-nice-for-words man who is all about believing. ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ is a soft-hearted fable that works on you in an enchanting way. When the film comes out (at Thanksgiving), there won’t be a dry eye in the megaplexes of America.”

Ella Kemp of “The Playlist” has high praise for Rhys as well: “It’s a transformative performance, one that begins with stony bitterness and gives way to an emotionally naked revelation without ever losing an ounce of gravitas. Denial gives way to reckoning and exposure, before finding confrontation and finally, catharsis. Relief.

“The Hollywood Reporter’s” Todd McCarthy is keen on Hanks but is a bit iffy with Heller’s take on the material, describing it as “entirely predictable” and regrets the lack of “edge” that was prominent in her “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” But Hanks as Rogers saves the day: “It’s ultimately pretty much Hanks’ show, and Hanks’ show alone. One has long since taken the actor’s gifts for granted and as soon as this film was announced, it was nearly a given that he would be perfect in the role. Well, he is, but it would have been great to see him in a few more varied situations.”

Hanks just might win his third Oscar for this essential supporting role after claiming back-to-back Best Actor trophies for 1993’s “Philadelphia” and 1994’s “Forrest Gump” and not getting any Academy attention since he was up for his lead in 2000’s “Castaway.” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” opens Nov. 22.

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