It should immediately be noted that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a biopic about Fred Rogers, the children’s television star better known as “Mr. Rogers.” Yes the title is derived from Rogers’ signature song, and Tom Hanks is terrific as Rogers, but only in a supporting capacity. That’s right: In what will be an unpleasant surprise for many, Rogers is merely a supporting character, not the lead.
Instead, director Marielle Heller’s (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) film centers on cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who works so hard he neglects his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) and infant son. Lloyd is also distant from his horrible father (Chris Cooper). Lloyd interviews Rogers for a piece in Esquire, and Rogers becomes a mentor/friend who comes in and out of Lloyd’s life, always with kind-hearted messages such as, “There’s always something you can do with the mad you feel.”
Here’s the problem: We’ve seen plenty of movies about emotionally defeated, bitter men overcoming obstacles. While at times moving, these films are often predictable. In contrast, aside from a superb documentary last year entitled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, we haven’t seen much that explores who Fred Rogers was, and what made him tick. How, and why, was he so genteel, soft-spoken, and effective with children? What made him lose his temper, and what happened when he did? Was Mr. Rogers just a screen persona, or was that really him? We get terse but unsatisfactory answers to these questions, and without an all-too-brief appearance from Mrs. Rogers (Maryann Plunkett), we’d know even less.
This is a rare instance of the more interesting character not being the focal point of the story, which leaves viewers wanting more Rogers. Given that the audience is there for Rogers in the first place, that’s bad.
The good news is, what is in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is reasonably well done. The film is based on an Esquire article from November 1998 entitled, “Can You Say … ‘Hero’?” by Tom Junod (Lloyd Vogel is based on him). It paints Lloyd as a bitter, sympathetic man whose father did him wrong, and because we can tell deep down that Lloyd is a loving husband and father, we forgive the fact that he doesn’t always know how to show it. To his credit, Rhys gets us to root for Lloyd even though his character arc is predictable, and he shares an affable chemistry with Hanks’ Rogers. Furthermore, the way Rogers helps Lloyd is poignant and sweet, and serves as a microcosm of the effect Rogers had on so many.
Heller structures the film as if it’s a long episode of Rogers’ television series, and goes so far as to include the miniatures and puppets that were a signature of the show. This is nostalgic, and a lovely way to endear the film to Rogers’ fans. Indeed, like the series and the man himself, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has an earnest sweetness that wins you over.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — Rated PG. Directed by Marielle Heller. Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, and Maryann Plunkett.