Casting Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is as perfect a casting as you can get. I don’t think anyone would say Hank’s face really resembles Fred Rogers’ jaw structure or cheekbones, even if he nails the soft-spoken, patient drawl that made the famed children’s show host sound so endearing. But having the nicest actor in Hollywood play one of the nicest men in pop culture seemed fixated on a different goal: capturing the essence of what Mr. Rogers meant to 40+ years worth of neighbors. We already got insight into Mr. Rogers’ history with last year’s acclaimed tearjerker documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Instead, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood wants to look at how that image is reciprocated by a world now skeptical of radical kindness. It’s also not the movie you think it is.
Mr. Rogers isn’t really the focus of this film, acting more as an omnipresent spiritual narrator for the man interviewing him. In fact, the narrative structure for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood really surprised me, opening up like…. well a two-hour long episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, complete with Hanks’ Fred Rogers entering his set, switching to his iconic cardigan and sneakers, even a ‘Picture Picture’ video segment later on. Director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me) reinforces this pastiche aesthetic by imposing old TV grainy specs over the Roger segments to make it feel like a PBS nostalgia trip, suggesting that the audience are still “neighbors” at heart. This only serves to surprise viewers with a darker and more ambiguous storyline than the trailers implied.
Loosely inspired by Tom Jund’s 1998 Esquire magazine interview with Rogers, the Jund stand-in is Lloyd Vogel (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys), a high-profile but somewhat jaded journalist. He writes good articles that, as Lloyd puts it, “change a broken world with our words,” but interviewees often regard them as hit pieces. Living with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their newborn son Gavin, Lloyd’s first time father fears are kicked up a notch with the return of his deadbeat dad Jerry (Chris Cooper), whom he still resents for abandoning his mom while she was dying. In other words, this is the type of guy who doubts that Fred Rogers- the nice TV host who plays with hand puppets in a fantasy setting- could be the real deal.
What follows is a sort of cat and mouse discussion where Lloyd presses Rogers on his status with children and Rogers, in turn, challenges his interrogator to open up. But open up in the way only Mr. Rogers knows how: the way he would with a child dealing with issues they don’t fully understand yet. This push for goodness is what keeps the man so legendary twenty-six years post-mortem in an era where social media has reduced human interactions to endless pie fights. It’s also why people young and old alike lined up for miles to shake his hand, tell them their fears, or even sing “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” on the subway. That last scene actually happened, mind you.
At the same time, Heller’s film also delves a bit into Roger’s psyche in a few subtle, but interesting ways. Despite scoffing at the idea of viewing himself as a hero or saint, this is a man who continuously shouldered a lofty mission of helping children grow up and accept themselves despite the world’s woes. Whenever he’s pressed on this mission being a burden, I always noticed how Hanks’ Rogers deflected onto other things, be they the problems of others or bringing out Daniel Tiger for entertainment purposes. Even his music acts as a way to channel feelings of frustration into a way to better his audience. Given how much we’ve elevated Rogers to sainthood status- a result of us never seeing how he’d fare in the social media age- these moments reinforce an underlying theme that even he wasn’t devoid of faults.
The film’s style, as I mentioned before, feels like an an extended episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s not just Tom Hanks introducing us to Lloyd as a character in his opening segments, but even how scenes transition, with travel shots being done with the same miniature model format of the opening credits. At times, the wall between meta narrative and real world becomes hard to make out, which probably helps with the fact that this isn’t really a biopic. But things get especially trippy at the midway point with one sequence that I can only describe as Mr. Rogers getting the David Lynch treatment. You’ll understand when you see it.
Much like Mr. Rogers’ show, this film is simple but carries more depth under the surface. Its focus is on Mr. Rogers but it’s not really about Mr. Rogers- Fred is just the soft-spoken guide helping Lloyd deal with some hard choices in his life right now, none of which have easy answers. His messages are quite simple: be kind, forgive and remember that those who raised you were once in your shoes. And by the end Vogel is changed much like any child who ever sat in front of the TV and watched Fred Rogers put on his sweater.
It’s kind of amazing when you think of all the figures Mr. Rogers met and touched in his life. Musicians, actors, teachers, a boy in a wheelchair, a 280 pound ASL gorilla. So, despite some very creative liberties with Tom Jund’s life, the film is still true to the idea of making a simple journalist’s life better. And a number of other scenes from you might have thought were melodramatic- they actually happened. While A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood didn’t make my tears flow the way Won’t You Be My Neighbor did, it’s still a sentimental piece of work.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
You were likely sold on this movie the moment you heard “Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers.” And it is a solid and unorthodox quasi-biopic less interested in the life of a man than what his message of empathy and kindness mean to us now. That’s about as impactful as taking a trolley ride through the Land of Make-Believe. It’ll probably leave you with such a good feeling inside.