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. Rogers.
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.
Director: Marielle Heller
Cast: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Chris Cooper
Writer: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster