3 out of 5 stars.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” isn’t what most viewers will go in to expecting or wanting, but it may end up being just what they needed. In these times where hate is prevalent everywhere, Mister Rogers has experienced a bit of a resurgence these last couple years, first with the excellent documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and now with this film, directed by Marielle Heller and inspired by a 1998 magazine article. But “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is less about the life and career of Fred Rogers (portrayed in this film by Tom Hanks) and more about his teachings, as seen through the eyes of a cynic who can’t believe that Mister Rogers is really as purely good as he appears to be.
That cynic is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist for Esquire whose jaded view of humanity stems from his father leaving him and his sister as their mother was dying. He has since developed a reputation for being difficult, so that when Esquire plans a series on heroes, Fred Rogers is the only subject willing to be interviewed by him. Lloyd begins traveling back and forth from New York City to the Pittsburgh-based set of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” where his conversations with Fred gradually begin to shift his mindset, especially when his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) suddenly reenters his life.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” feels like a solid introduction to Fred Rogers’ philosophies, but it’s also a movie made for people who are familiar with the show. In other words, I can’t imagine many people who never watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” will appreciate Hanks’ quiet and contemplative performance, or the way the film takes lifts elements from the show and uses them in the larger story. This could be as simple as miniatures telling us where we are geographically, or the framing device used to introduce the audience to Lloyd, which is structured the same as the beginning and end of an episode of “Mister Rogers.” It also takes the show’s stranger elements and uses them in almost nightmarish ways, like a dream sequence Lloyd has as he wrestles with his inner demons. The meticulous recreation of these set pieces and props that many of us are so familiar with does have some nostalgic value, but Heller repurposes them in a much more creative manner.
While you could say the marketing for the film is a bit misleading, it actually does work in the story’s favor that Mister Rogers is not the main character. He himself doesn’t go through enough change to make him a solid protagonist, but he is able to exact change in others. The only problem with this is that Rhys isn’t really a compelling protagonist either. Sure, he begins the film with a lot of problems and his character changes throughout, but we’ve seen enough white male protagonists with daddy issues. He is so crotchety at times, even around his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and newborn son that it’s a wonder they’re even still with him.
Despite all that, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” remains an intriguing exercise thanks to both Heller’s direction and Hanks’ performance, both of which acknowledge the idea that anger will always exist (the quiet final scene with Rogers exemplifies this nicely), but that it can be released in productive ways, and love can always overcome it. It’s also a credit to Heller and the screenplay (written by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue) that this message comes across without the film ever feeling hokey. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” may have been a series for children, but this movie is aimed squarely at adults. And if you can get over some of the weirder aspects of the film, and a protagonist who isn’t all that interesting, then maybe you will be able to take what you need to hear from this movie too.
Runtime: 109 minutes. Rated PG.