Synopsis: A cynical journalist begrudgingly accepts an assignment to write a profile piece on the beloved icon Mr. Rogers and finds his perspective on life transformed.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Wendy Makkena, Enrico Colantoni, Tammy Blanchard
Director: Marielle Heller
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: There’s a scene early in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood when the wife of the main character has just found out her husband is going to be doing an article on the cherished children’s television host, Mr. Rogers. She knows her husband has a reputation for being a hard-edged journalist that prides himself on showing a different side to the people he covers, often writing a warts and all exposé on their life. In the nicest, most sincere way she says to him, “Please don’t ruin my childhood.” I’m trying to think of you, reader, in the same way and will consider that you’ve been looking forward to seeing this drama since the first trailer dropped several months back and people lost their minds seeing Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers.
At the same time, I have to be forthright and honest (just as Mr. Rogers would want) and say that I found it difficult to connect with A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, almost entirely, and I’m still not quite sure why. It’s not that I didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers. I was a child of PBS and lived for the days when he opened that closet door and picked out the red sweater because it is my favorite color so I knew it was obviously being chosen just for me. His delicate delivery made the life lessons being taught feel less like education and more like imagination being put into daily practice and I’ve carried on so much of what I learned watching his show, most of it almost subconsciously.
Maybe it’s the Tom Hanks of it all that did it. Hanks is probably the closest thing we have right now to a modern Mr. Rogers (the actor recently found out they are related, curiously great timing to coincide with the release, hmm?) and while the actor would eschew the comparison, he’s consistently as the top of the most trustworthy of celebrity lists. Why not get the actor everyone feels most comfortable with to portray the television personality so much of the country grew up watching? It’s not a far reach in the least…but for me the final product never could get over the fact that it was Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers and never was I able to put that aside. And that was a problem…a big one.
Inspired by an article written by Tom Junod that ran in Esquire magazine in November 1998, this isn’t a biopic of Mr. Rogers but more of a story of how a friendship with Fred Rogers made an impact on the life of a journalist struggling with personal issues. Creating a fictionalized version of Junod named Lloyd Vogel, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) and Noah Harpster (who also has a small supporting role) have bookended the film like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, complete with an opening credit montage which cleverly introduces the use of miniature sets as we travel from location to location. A new father awkwardly more drawn to his work than his newborn, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys, The Post) doesn’t appear to derive pleasure from much and what does interest him he’s more apt to pick apart.
At the insistence of his editor (Christine Lahti, The Doctor), Lloyd travels to Pittsburgh to the set of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood to interview Fred Rogers (Hanks, A League of Their Own) for a special “Heroes” edition of the magazine he works for. Unconvinced Rogers is as wholesome as he makes himself out to be, Lloyd tries over the course of several interviews to find a crack in the vanilla veneer, only to find himself becoming frustrated when his subject continues to turn the tables on him. Using his special way with putting people at ease, Rogers is able to coax certain pent up emotions out of the tightly-wound, fiercely guarded Lloyd, feelings he’s tamped down for his own protection and finding them rise up again isn’t a comfortable place for him to be. When Lloyd’s long-absent father (Chris Cooper, Live by Night) returns, it creates a perfect storm for Lloyd to let go of long held anger and come to an acceptance with the man he has become. With that comes a choice on how he wants to move forward.
For a movie that’s so deeply about the male psyche and how men are apt to hide their feelings instead of expressing them freely, it’s so interesting the film was directed by a female. In 2018, Marielle Heller did wonders exploring a dark side of alienation in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and she mines similar territory here by making sure the script and actors allow those raw emotional patches to show. For me, though, Lloyd’s cynicism and buried resentment for his father cut too deep and went on too long…so that by the time Rogers ray of light appeared to guide him out of his dark place, I couldn’t quite find room at my table for his complete redemption. Whereas in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Heller let her central character dupe unsuspecting people in a scam a fair amount, it didn’t come with such a harsh bite to it. Lloyd’s so damaged (and also, it must be said, not written with as many dimensions as Rhys tries to give him) that I found myself more uninterested with him in the beginning than anything else.
Though the marketing for the film centers on Hanks, he’s practically a supporting character in the film. Especially in the latter half, Hanks takes a backseat for Rhys to have his familial drama with his wife (a solid Susan Kelechi Watson, This Is Us) and his dad play out which does lead to a moving emotional climax. That this finale is set into motion by Fred Rogers isn’t a coincidence, the script seems to have him be behind every emotional turnpike in Lloyd’s feelings freeway. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention a rather breathtaking moment shared between Lloyd and Rogers in a café that is played in total silence. These unique interludes are so powerful and reach right to the heart of you that it made me wish there were tenfold more of them scattered throughout the rest of the movie.
I suppose I should mention I had a similar detached feeling when I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the popular documentary solely focusing on Mr. Rogers, a few years back. With that one, though, I went in with different expectations because I felt like I was going to connect more with the man himself and was confused why that movie felt so flat at the end. The doc was certainly well made and informative…but was it anything more than that really? Mr. Rogers is an adjacent piece of the story being told in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood and some may find, like I did, that main story less inviting and the experience as a whole suffers as a result. I know I’ll be in the minority of viewers that don’t give it an enthusiastic rave (as we seem to be required to when it comes to anything Mr. Rogers related) and while it’s a film I’m sure will please many, this wasn’t a Neighborhood I could see myself revisiting.