Directed by Marielle Heller, A Beautiful Day in the
Neighborhood stars Matthew Rhys as journalist Lloyd Vogel who’s assigned to
write a puff piece on beloved television host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Lloyd’s
own life is in tatters due to issues with his father (Chris Cooper) and
insecurities about being a husband and father himself, but through his
interviews with Mr. Rogers, he might be able to see life as Fred did.
First thing’s first: I find it a tad annoying that in a film
called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood about Mr. Rogers and with Tom
Hanks at top billing and prominent in all marketing he is still a supporting
character to…a writer. Fred Rogers was a kind and sweet man who lived a life of
kindness and sweetness, never having a bad word to say about anyone and only
ever fought to protect public broadcasting and the education of children
through television, so I can see how the writers would seek to engineer some
conflict in this story seeing as little to no conflict was involved with Mr.
However, this means that all the scenes of Lloyd Vogel
talking to Mr. Rogers become the absolute best parts and everything else is
rather pedestrian. This is not the fault of director Marielle Heller (Can
You Ever Forgive Me?) because she takes this mostly by-the-numbers story
and crafts it in a loving fashion that reminds one of the beauty of Mr. Rogers
life and shines with his universal influence. Shooting on film, having multiple
sequences photographed using old 80s TV cameras with model animation to
establish locations, and specific lighting and camera arrangements all give us
a real emotional palette to work as an audience with beyond whatever might be
on the page initially.
Matthew Rhys does a fine job in the lead role because he is
a solid actor capable of complex emotional states and sells the old “cynic
turned optimist” story well, but I never truly connected with it. He has some
real issues with his father and is struggling to come to terms with his trauma
while still being present with his own family, and this is all nice and good,
but I’ve seen this story before. I doubt Lloyd Vogel is a direct representation
of Tom Junod who wrote the original Mr. Rogers article “Can You Say…Hero?” in
Esquire, so most of this character is just engineered conflict to give the
story some larger life, even though a more simplistic look at the one-on-one
connection between two opposite people is the stronger story. I understand that
it might be a way to show how rich and eternal Mr. Rogers’ influence was on the
lives of everyday people, but there is a more unique and interesting way to
approach this beyond how the writers ultimately did here.
Tom Hanks’ casting as Mr. Rogers is a tad odd seeing as
beyond the spot-on eyebrows, Hanks looks nothing like Fred Rogers. I would have
expected Jim Parsons in old-age makeup to be the first choice. This doesn’t
stop Hanks from fully embodying the generosity and humanity that Mr. Rogers
effortlessly exuded around everyone, silently taking on the burden of other
people’s pain and giving back endless love. We feel this reality in Hanks’
performance because of his exact replication of the accent and specific
mannerisms of Mr. Rogers, but also because he’s Tom Hanks; perhaps the nicest
man in the world by all accounts.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood works best when
it’s Tom Hanks exploring the endless amounts of life and joy that Mr. Rogers
left in this world, and when Marielle Heller can flex some fantastic
directorial talent, all of which elevates some rather weak writing and a story
that threatens to dip into melodrama. I did expect more from this movie because
of the talent involved and possibilities of the story, but it’s a nice
companion to the pitch-perfect documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,
and just like that movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will leave
you feeling accepted and enlightened in a dark and challenging world.
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