A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Biographical dramas that are actually about someone who had a (sometimes brief) relationship with the central figure are a bit of a mixed bag. How can you accurately capture a person’s essence through another’s experiences? The drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood attempts to do this for beloved children’s TV host Mr. Rogers. It shows his kindness and selfless love for humanity through the eyes of an emotionally damaged journalist. It hints at something more complicated within Fred Rogers, but its approach limits how revealing it can truly be. It is sweet, uplifting and very nice. However, it lacks the depth of feeling of last year’s wonderful Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? There are a lot of good intentions here and the result is enjoyable and occasionally moving. Unfortunately, by taking the attention off its most interesting character, it succumbs to cliché far too often.
Lloyd Vogel is a journalist known for taking down his subjects, to the point where people are afraid to have him interview them. He is asked by his editor to profile Mr. Rogers for an issue on heroes. Lloyd is skeptical, but has no choice. He travels to Pittsburgh to interview Mr. Rogers, leading himself down a path of self-discovery.
Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers. As I write this, I am unsure there is an actor today who could better convey his sincerity, compassion and desire to be there for others. We tend to distrust overly friendly people these days, finding it hard to believe they do not have an ulterior motive. Mr. Rogers needs to be exactly as he appears. We must be able to accept him at face value or the whole production falls apart. That is Hanks’ biggest contribution to Beautiful Day. His performance displays the honest pleasure of being in the company of whoever he is with. This screenplay is telling us Mr. Rogers was not Fred Rogers playing a character; it was who he was in every fiber of his being. He is a symbol Hanks makes real. That is a more difficult task than it sounds. Hanks brings him alive in a way that encapsulates a man who made generations of children feel like it was okay to be themselves.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (102 minutes without the end credits) is not so much about Fred Rogers as a person. It is more about how he made us feel. That is why the emphasis is on Lloyd, a man who needed someone to really look at him and care about what they saw. He is fully prepared to puncture the myth of Mr. Rogers. Instead, he finds a book that matches its cover. A lot of time is spent on Lloyd’s family: his relationship with his loving wife and infant son, and especially his long-standing conflict with his father. There is nothing new in that material. It is not particularly interesting to watch. The performances (by Matthew Rhys as Lloyd, Susan Kelechi Watson as his wife and Chris Cooper as his estranged Dad) are all fine, yet there is absolutely nothing in this plotline we have not seen a million times before. What makes this movie worthwhile is seeing the impact Fred Rogers has on those he comes into contact with. There is not quite enough of that.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood does not have layers. It is about how his goodness effects everyone around him. There are a couple of moments suggesting a sadness inside him, but this is not an exposé or even a biopic. It is about the feeling associated with the man. When it focuses on that feeling, it works surprisingly well. When it focuses on Lloyd’s problems, the feeling fades. If you want a better sense of who Fred Rogers was, check out the documentary. For a narrative exploration of the feeling he gave his viewers, I suppose this does the job decently enough.
3¼ out of 5
Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel
Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers
Susan Kelechi Watson as Andrea Vogel
Chris Cooper as Jerry Vogel
Maryann Plunkett as Joanne Rogers
Enrico Colantoni as Bill Isler
Directed by Marielle Heller
Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster