A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood tells the story of beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) through the eyes of Esquire Magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). With his personal and professional lives on the verge of a crisis, Vogel—a serious investigative journalist—is tasked with writing a 400-word profile of Rogers for an issue on heroes. As Vogel tries to figure out if Mister Rogers is for real, Fred helps him learn how to be more present for his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and their young son, and work through his issues with his estranged father, Jerry (Chris Cooper).
After seeing a good documentary about the life and work of Fred Rogers last year, I seriously questioned if a drama based on his story could contribute anything new to the conversation. The frame narrative in this film does a good job of creating a fresh angle for looking at the impact of Mister Rogers. Although this movie is based on a real magazine article, it takes considerable creative license, changing the plot and even the writer’s name. Although I found Lloyd Vogel’s narrative compelling, it does have some hackneyed elements that, with a few aesthetic changes, would fit right into a Hallmark movie. That said, the cast does a good job bringing the family drama to life. Matthew Rhys does especially well when portraying the moments when Vogel’s anger starts to get the better of him.
Then, there’s Tom Hanks. Fred Rogers weighed 143 pounds every day of his adult life. When I saw promotions for this film, I was concerned that Hanks, a significantly bigger person was too young and too tall to convincingly portray Mister Rogers. I did not have enough faith in Hanks’s abilities, I suppose. My hesitations were immediately put to rest as I was drawn in by the calm slowness that Hanks brought to the role. It is hard at first to lose sight of his Tom Hanksyness, but he captured Rogers’s mannerisms so thoroughly that he really disappeared into the role.
The interplay between the angry Vogel and the gentle Rogers is where the film started to lose me. Although people in the story assert a couple of times that Mister Rogers is no saint (a common refrain from his real-life wife who makes a cameo in the movie), he often responds to Lloyd as though he is an emotional jedi. The film often feels like a fable as much as it does a true story. Rumors about Rogers being a sniper or having a sleeve of tattoos stem from disbelief that he could really be so sincerely kind, and in the interactions between Vogel and Rogers, insincerity sneaks in, even as the film seeks to show that Rogers was the real deal.
I am actually a bit of a Mister Rogers buff, having done a lot of reading about him over the last couple of years. If this movie inspires you to do further research, I recommend the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, as well as the books The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King and The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth. The audiobook of The Good Neighbor, narrated by LeVar Burton, is particularly good.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood does a decent job of capturing the heart of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood while offering a different spin and plenty of drama. It is not my favorite take on the work of Fred Rogers, but on its own, it is a fine film. I rate it 3.5 of 5 stars.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, based on the 1998 article “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod. It was directed by Marielle Heller, is rated PG, and runs 1 hour 49 minutes.