By Armando Vanegas
Having Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers is a great idea for a movie. In fact, it’s a surprise that having America’s most loved and friendliest movie star playing one of the best human beings to ever exist took this long to even happen. But from there, the work should already be done for you and you don’t have to try that hard. Director Marielle Heller, though, knows a cool idea isn’t always enough to maintain a movie. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood wisely decides to use what we know about the children’s TV show host, Fred Rogers, to create a character study focusing on how the incredible power he had on people could affect real change, even in one person.
Matthew Rhys is Lloyd Vogel, a jaded journalist assigned to cover Mr. Rogers for a magazine profile on what it means to be a hero. What starts as a cynical mission to expose the true man behind Mr. Rogers turns into a personal journey. It turns out that Lloyd struggles with being a good father and husband as his own father reappears into his life and forces him to look back on his painful past. As he refuses to confront all that he’s repressed for so many years, Mr. Rogers finds a way into the man’s heart that ends up changing his life in ways he never thought before. I don’t want to spoil it too much but Mr. Rogers’ role is so important to the movie that it starts to feel like we’re seeing an adult version of his TV show. For many kids like myself, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of those big children’s shows that made a big impression that was unlike any other. The reason why is because Rogers had this way of talking about real issues to kids in a down to earth and straightforward way. The way he came across in his body language and the way he spoke made it so easy to listen to him. He made you feel better about your issues as he made it feel universal. Hanks is doing his usual nice guy schtick, yet he finds a way to make the role of Rogers his own.
The way he plays the character gives him this ethereal, spiritual aura. Even when he’s not on screen, his presence is still felt. The movie caters to him when it has the chance, but for the better. The narrative starts to move in a direction where the force of Fred’s personality collides with Lloyd’s life when things get too tough for Lloyd and makes the movie a more surreal experience than expected. Once these issues have to be dealt with, you know things have to come to a head at a certain point. I usually dread this stuff because I have my own father issues and it’s usually done in a really cloying, corny way in most Hollywood movies. But I was willing to give this the benefit of the doubt because first, it was hard to pass up Hanks in this role of Mr. Rogers. Second, the trailer looked good. Third, I was pleased by Heller’s previous work with her first movie, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
, that I had faith with what she would do with the material. That movie also had some material that could be tricky in the wrong hands, but she found a way to bring some kind of authenticity and uniqueness to it. She seems to have done the same here. Yes, you know where it’s going but she knows how to direct her actors and have them give the characters some depth. Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s script is pretty clever at how the movie is structured at times. I don’t know how much of the movie onscreen is Heller or the screenwriters, but I choose to believe they both had something with how they successfully manage to subvert our expectations from what seemed like a typical Mr. Rogers biopic. We never see a large arc where Fred gets the show and how he has to fight to keep it or some other typical show business struggle that could have been used and the movie is all the better for that.
Anyone who’s seen Matthew Rhys as an actor knows what to expect here. He was always the most humanistic and sympathetic of the two leads on FX’s The Americans
and that’s on display here. Whereas some movies would make Lloyd an out and out curmudgeon, the movie actually shows some balance to him as we see that he’s actually a really good family man and a good husband. He’s able to make things work in his personal life until life finds a way to get him out of shape. He has an authentically slow path to face his issues and confront them, which Rhys is great at being able to sustain. He never becomes a total screw up, but the movie acknowledges that he has flaws that hold him back in both his personal and professional life. It’s even why the only person willing to be interviewed by him for his magazine is Mr. Rogers when the magazine has a list of people they’re planning to interview. It’s a quiet, low key performance fitting for the movie it’s in. We still are on his side because he always understands that he’s made mistakes. At the beginning, he’s cynical and unwilling to make changes, but his change of heart is believable. Once he meets Mr. Rogers, the clash of two wildly different personalities gives their scenes together some tension and actually helps to show a different side of their characters. It even allows Fred to open up about his own flaws. It really stuck with me when he showed that he’s not the best. How could it be? Mr. Rogers is one of the best humans ever. There’s no way that he’s mad sometimes. But I realized Lloyd and Fred are like many people. We all have our own issues, but it’s how we deal with it that defines us.
When you see it, it might not be what you expect. It’s more of a character study rather than a standard Mr. Rogers biopic. How Mr. Rogers fits into the story is well done and helps to subvert the expectations of what some might expect from this movie. The direction helps to keep things moving as the performances have the weight to keep things compelling. I was very invested in where it was going to go. The movie makes some strange but welcoming choices including a trippy dream sequence or the numerous homages to the series that’s used to transition between scenes. Once things reach their inevitable conclusion, it’s not as good as what came before because it starts to hit all its expected beats. But it’s good that it lasted longer than I expected before it became too predictable. Even then, I can’t be too sore about it because it comes across those moments in a genuine way and you already care about Lloyd too much to see where it goes thanks to Matthew Rhys’ nuanced performance. I can’t say that I totally would do what Lloyd would do in his situation because I get it. I was actually on his side for most of the movie’s run and would’ve been happy if his father just left the movie unceremoniously considering the circumstances. Yet I get what the movie is saying about how those kinds of issues stick with you. When you allow it to make you a worse person, it’s probably best to deal with it and confront it in the best way possible. The obvious babyface turn from Lloyd is the corniest the movie gets, but I appreciate that they didn’t make it too sentimental.
Tom Hanks, as expected, is fantastic when he appears and makes a strong impression. It also helps that the movie is capable of honoring how wonderful of a person Mr. Rogers was. His casual and soothing demeanor will inspire the audience to have those same feelings. It does have some really emotional moments that will probably make people cry, whether because it’s too touching or heartwarming. If that’s your thing and you like to be hit in the feels as it were, then this is the movie for you. Personally, this didn’t happen to me but it did touch me in some way. By the end, it will warm your heart and make you wish that more people out there were as good natured and positive as Fred Rogers was.
I am giving A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces!