A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Fred Rogers is an extraordinary subject for a movie, as proven by Morgan Neville’s phenomenal 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes a different tack, placing Rogers almost at the sidelines of his own story.
Generations of children grew up to the sights of a lanky man entering what appeared to be a humbly decorated home, putting his coat and dress shoes in the closet, and pulling out a cardigan sweater and comfortable shoes, singing, no matter what was taking place outside, that it was “a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” For all his years on television, Fred Rogers provided a space of calm that respected the inquisitive nature of his young viewers. He never coddled or shielded them from the problems of the world, but through his immense empathy and passion for his work, he helped provide an alternative to the sugar-coated corporate entertainment that was meant to stultify rather than provide guidance.
Heller’s bio-pic fictionalizes the writing of a magazine profile and gives its main focus to the writer character, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), based very loosely on Tom Junod, whose Esquire article provided the basis for the screenplay. The reason for this is simple enough to understand, as the writer’s emotional foibles are easier to codify into traditional dramatic ups and downs.
When Rogers does appear, the film is immediately lifted up. The casting of Tom Hanks seems almost predestined, and his subtle and caring portrayal is by far the most engaging part of the entire project. Hanks beautifully captures Rogers’ slightly distant air, where his proclivity to listen forces others to fill in the space. That patience allowed him to effortlessly speak to children, erasing many of the power dynamics inherent between adults and children and focusing instead on their shared emotional connections.
From the subway scene that plays prominently in the trailer, where strangers burst into the theme song of his show, through to his deepening interest in Vogel’s investigation into heroism, the film is an absolute gem when it focuses on this most remarkable person. Just when it feels like the movie is about to become too hagiographic, Hanks provides nuance. His Rogers never appears messianic despite his air of grace.
The rest of the film, unfortunately, is a big of a slog. All the other melodrama feels cheap and forced. Frankly, it’s as if we’re watching a boring family drama elevated by the occasional cameo of this famous TV host. Vogel’s tempestuous relationship with his father (Chris Cooper) and strains with wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) are dull and predictable. The absence of what should be the central character is felt throughout, and we’re left waiting for Hanks to come back and make things right again.
The end result is a middling, maudlin mess that includes a breathtakingly accomplished turn by Hanks. The actor proves yet again that his versatility and compassion will elevate even the most pedestrian of projects. Heller’s greatest accomplishment was to secure her famous star, and she elicits one of his great performances. He easily looms over every other underwritten and two-dimensional character who comes into his orbit.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is little more than a beautiful performance presenting a beautiful man. The rest is just fodder to let Hanks play. It may serve as a reminder of what a remarkable person Rogers was, and perhaps may encourage those who missed the Won’t You Be My Neighbor? documentary to check out that far superior work of non-fiction. For those interested in awards races, this is one to check out for Hanks alone. Unfortunately, there’s not much to recommend beyond that.