“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” isn’t really about Mr. Rogers. It’s about jaded journalist Lloyd Vogel, who is assigned to profile Mr. Rogers as part of an edition on real-life heroes for the magazine Esquire. Lloyd is offended at the very thought of having to do a puff piece on a children’s television show host, but is ordered into it by his boss. He begrudgingly takes on the task, unable to understand the reverence for Fred Rogers held by those around him. His own wife warns him to not ruin her childhood with his article. Being a cynical investigative journalist, Lloyd attempts to peel back the layers of Mr. Rogers to find what he ultimately has been searching for all along – love and forgiveness.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a feel good movie for a feel bad time. Do you think that in history we’ve never been faced with greater divides between ourselves and our neighbors? Think again. Things aren’t so bad now, but we like to pretend that they are. The best century to live in has somehow become the worst, and it’s hard to imagine anyone admitting that they live in the most prosperous age that the world has ever seen. But people still deal with the same personal conflicts that people have dealt with since the beginning of time – love, hatred, revenge, and forgiveness. What would Mr. Rogers say about the world today if he were here still living in it? I think he would say the same thing he always has – to love, to listen, and to help thy neighbor.
The film is based on the article, “Can You Say…Hero?” which appeared in Esquire in 1998. If you’ve read the article, then you’ll realize just how much of “A Beautiful Day” is fictionalized. Even if you haven’t, it’s pretty blatant throughout the course of the film where the material has been completely made up, and sometimes I found it distracting. Many of Hanks’ lines are just plucked out of various episodes of Mr. Rogers’ television show and feel completely out of context. There are some significant tonal shifts in the film that also really threw me off. One could argue that the tonal shifts are meant to match the emotional swells of the characters, but I’m not sure I’d buy it. The focus of the film is primarily on the relationship between Lloyd and his estranged father, who cheated on his wife and abandoned the kids at an early age. Mr. Rogers is merely a supporting character in the story, helping Lloyd to understand forgiveness and welcome love back into his life. The best scenes are between Hanks and Rhys, who both turn in excellent performances.
The conflict between Lloyd and his father works well as a plot device, but it also feels a bit on-the-nose. The story is predictable, and it didn’t end with the emotional payoff I was hoping for. Lloyd’s father doesn’t have a substantial enough arc to convince me of his change of heart. Even on his deathbed, he remains an alcoholic. Susan Watson plays Andrea Vogel, Lloyd’s wife. She and Rhys have great chemistry together, and I look forward to seeing more of her in future films.
The production design in “A Beautiful Day” is impressive. The set is recreated with expert detail, and the miniatures made famous in the credits of Mr. Rogers’ show are used for transitional scenes when characters travel from place to place. The infamous puppets also make some charming appearances. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a nice escape from the harsh realities of the world, and sometimes that’s all we want from a film. I was hoping to get more insight out of it about Mr. Rogers than I did – Hanks doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. If you want to learn more about Fred Rogers, then you should check out the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Otherwise, to echo one of Mr. Rogers’ sentiments, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” might be just fine the way it is.