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A BEAUTIFUL MOVIE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD

* * * * (out of four)


The cool thing about the new movie about Mr. Rogers is … it isn’t really about Mr. Rogers. And that would be just fine with him.

In the amazing “Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Rogers acts as the voice of healing for a troubled writer penning a magazine piece on the beloved children’s TV host.

It’s based on the true story of Tom Junod, an Esquire journalist who was assigned to interview Rogers for a short feature and instead produced a sprawling tribute that became the magazine’s cover story that month.

The movie changes Junod to Lloyd Vogel, a young husband and father who remains so traumatized by a tragic upbringing that he starts a family fistfight at his sister’s wedding.

Rogers -- flawlessly rendered here by Tom Hanks -- can see at once that Vogel is broken, and he undertakes to help in the astoundingly sincere and selfless way that only Fred Rogers seemed to possess.

Though ads have naturally stressed the popular Hanks, Vogel and his aging father are at the center of this story, and it is an emotional powerhouse. In the same way, there’s been a lot of well-deserved praise for Hanks’ letter-perfect re-creation of the legendary Rogers, which is all the more amazing as the two don’t really look alike.

But acting-wise, this film is carried by Matthew Rhys and Chris Cooper -- as, respectively, Vogel and his dad.

Cooper, star of “October Sky,” “American Beauty,” “The Bourne Identity” and the underseen “Lone Star,” is one of our finest working actors. Though his name is not well known, Cooper got a rare standing ovation when he took the Best Supporting Actor for “Adaptation,” and I just about gave him one here as well.

The veteran is matched step for step by Rhys, whose haunted face must often serve as a map to past pain, since he refuses to talk about what happened between him and his father -- and his mother.

A couple of the weird, dream-like scenes may throw you off at first. But the movie’s texture is already a bit surreal, what with its use of fuzzier TV-type video for footage from the show -- and wonderful “Neighborhood”-style miniatures of the Manhattan and Pittsburgh skylines.

Yet the script’s strongest moments come when Vogel and his father begin to reconcile. And in one knock-out restaurant scene, with Rogers urging the bitter Vogel to spend 60 seconds remembering the good people in his life who “loved him into being.” This full minute of silence gradually expands across the entire crowd of diners -- and then, as Hanks peers directly into the camera, it moves out into the theater as well. In all my years of reviewing movies, I’ve never seen anything like it.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” has officially de-throned “Endgame” as the best movie I’ve seen this year. Run, don’t walk to the nearest theater -- it’s a message everyone could use before the family-filled holidays begin.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,”

directed by Marielle Heller

Run time: 108 min.

Rated PG for strong themes, a fistfight and some language

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