Just a year after Morgan Neville’s indispensable documentary on Mister Rogers (“Won’t You Be My Neighbour?”), director Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” has iconic everyman Tom Hanks playing the good-hearted children’s TV host in a role that not only perfectly suits him, but also embodies everything we love about the legendary Oscar-winning actor.
Adapting Esquire reporter Tom Junod’s famous cover story on Rogers, Heller’s first big studio effort, after the indie successes of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” is a more polished and safe effort, but the moments of sheer transcendence allows the flaws to be forgiven.
Rogers isn’t the lead in ‘Beautiful Day’ – it’s Lloyd Vogel (as played by “The Americans” star Matthew Rhys). Vogel is a fictionalized version of Junod, a reporter with a reputation of scolding his interview subjects. He’s also a man on the brink of a mental breakdown. The grudge he has held on his dad (an excellent Chris Cooper) for abandoning their mother on her death bed re-emerges ten-fold when Pops decides to show up at Lloyd’s sister’s wedding. The two get into a fistfight ending with Lloyd’s nose bloody, but dad continuously tries to reconnect, even parking his car in front of Vogel’s apartment building overnight, hoping for his son to come out and talk. He never does, until dad reveals that he’s dying.
Enter Fred Rogers. Vogel has been tasked by his editor to write a 450-word puff piece on the TV host to help improve his image. Vogel doesn’t like the idea, but he doesn’t have a choice. His editor has had enough of his abrasive shenanigans and wants to set him on the right track. What better way than to speak to Rogers, right? This sets the stage for a series of conversations between Vogel and Rogers, which deepen as they go along and turn out to be the unequivocal highlights of the film.
And so, what other actor but Hanks could play Rogers? The legendary actor’s portrayal of the TV host encompasses everything we love dearly about him. There’s a sweetness to the performance that never veers towards saccharine. Hanks consistently strays away from any sort of clichés to find deeper meaning in a man who, by all accounts, was as good-hearted a person off-screen as he was on. A pessimistic and aggresive interview approach quickly turns into a therapeutic sessions for Vogel.
Heller’s decision to include exterior shots which look like miniatures lifted from the opening of Rogers’ show, with the help of talented cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ camera, feel inventive and necessary to tell this story. The same can’t be said of the lapses in Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s screenplay which overtly rely on Vogel’s personal troubles and less on Rogers himself. In fact, whenever Hanks is off-screen the film feels less alive, less involving. Suffice to say, the movie’s success relies on the conversations between Hanks and Rhys, moments which will not only make you think about the characters themselves but also of your own life — and that what Rogers always sought to do in his TV show.
Nearly two decades after his death, Rogers has had a Trump-era resurgence in the United States due to the sweet and warm-hearted nature of his persona. Not only does he cast his spell on Vogel, but also on the audience watching the movie. You feel like a better and more determined person once end credits role. [B/B+]