November 30, 2019 – Last year, came the great documentary about Fred Rogers, “Won't You Be My Neighbor?” and this year comes the heartwarming drama about the friendship between Fred Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) and troubled writer Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys of “The Post”). These are the kinds of movies we need in these troubled times.
The movie begins with Lloyd Vogel attending the wedding of his sister. He gets into an argument with his father, Jerry (played by Chris Cooper of “Breach”) which ends up in a fistfight. Lloyd hates his father for deserting his family when Lloyd's mother was dying, and then staying away for years.
Bitter and cynical, he looks for the worst in people. His editor at Esquire Magazine, Ellen (Christine Lahti of “Touched With Fire”) is worried about Lloyd, so she assigns him to do a brief profile of a national hero, Fred Rogers of the “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood” TV show. She thinks that meeting the kindly and gentle Fred Rogers will do Lloyd some good. She's right.
Meeting Rogers on the set of his show, Lloyd witnesses how good a man Fred Rogers is. He tries hard to find some flaw in him, some weakness, some kind of resentment or anger, but he is forced to admit to his wife, Andrea Vogel (Susan Kelechi Watson of the “This is Us” TV series) that Rogers is the nicest guy he has ever met.
Vogel had expected to meet a simple host of a children's TV show, but found Rogers to be much deeper and more complicated than Lloyd expected him to be. Rogers finds Vogel fascinating, especially the story about his fight with his father at the wedding. He wants to know Vogel and find out why he is so angry. He goes out of his way to meet with Vogel several times to listen to him.
Lending a kind ear to Vogel and asking the right questions, Rogers gradually draws the poison of Vogel's anger out of him, allowing him to eventually reconcile with his father, Jerry Vogel. For his part, Jerry is truly sorry for deserting his family years before and badly wants to reconcile with his son.
This part of the story, Lloyd Vogel's emotional journey, is very effective and very moving. What is oddly missing from this picture is Fred Rogers. He is not the central character of this movie. He is actually a supporting character, and we don't get to know him nearly as well as we get to know Vogel. So if you want to get to know the real Fred Rogers, watch the excellent documentary “Won't You Be My Neighbor?”
Be that as it may, Tom Hanks is the perfect actor to play Fred Rogers. He has always excelled in playing the Decent Man role, and he is wonderful here. Rhys is also excellent playing the bitter, angry, wounded man. This is a moving, heartwarming film about Vogel's emotional journey, but it probably should have spent a little more time on the wonderful Fred Rogers.
There are some odd visual devices in the film, such as using miniatures (resembling miniature sets used on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood show) for most outdoor scenes. Another odd visual device is to integrate Mr. Rogers Neighborhood TV show with the movie. Mr. Rogers introduces Vogel to his viewers by way of a photograph board. Vogel also appears as a miniature character in the show, shrunk down to puppet size. These visual cues and gimmicks worked, but I also found them a bit distracting.
This is an effective and moving film with very strong performances. If you were expecting this film to be about Fred Rogers, it isn't. He's there, and he is an important character, but the movie is more about the writer, Lloyd Vogel. The movie is set in two places which sometimes merge, a miniature world on a TV show, and a real life human drama. Mixing the two in this way is imaginative, but it doesn't work as well as I think it was intended to. Nevertheless, it is a good movie. It rates a B.
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