Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Christine Lahti
Austin Family Critical Rating: *** ½ of *****
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: **** ½ of *****
Fred Rogers, the beloved host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS (which ran for 31 seasons in total), is an iconic figure in American popular culture – the rare person who represents decency and courage on television, and a man who understood the complex emotions of children and how to address difficult topics in a meaningful way. Rogers was the subject of last year’s wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and it was only a matter of time until Hollywood made a narrative film about him.
Fortunately, there is no actor better suited for the role of Fred Rogers than Tom Hanks, who similarly embodies kindness and genuine compassion in the eyes of moviegoers. In Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Hanks is utterly believable as the man we’ve all seen on television through the years, but more importantly, he offers us a nuanced look at what drove the real-life Rogers. He’s not playing a one-note symbol of goodness – he’s playing a man who wrestles every day with how to do the right thing.
However, Heller makes the wise decision to not make A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood a traditional Fred Rogers biography – after all, we’ve seen that already in the documentary. In this film, Rogers isn’t even our protagonist – that would be Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist for Esquire Magazine known for his exposés and takedowns of major subjects. He’s selected to profile Rogers for an Esquire issue on heroes, and Vogel approaches his subject with a desire to dig underneath what he assumes is only a veneer of goodness on Rogers’s part. This skepticism comes partly from a painful childhood, in which his alcoholic father (the always excellent Chris Cooper) abandoned Vogel at a young age. To Vogel, Rogers is a phony – but the two men’s conversations over the course of the film lead Vogel to reexamine his worldview, and particularly his attitude toward his father.
I have to applaud Heller (and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster) for the chances they take with this movie’s narrative structure. They present Vogel’s story as if he’s the subject of an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as Rogers and his show’s characters (Lady Aberlin, Mr. McFeely, and Rogers’ sock puppet alter-ego, Daniel Tiger) lead Vogel on a road to forgiveness. Formally, it’s a fascinating and inventive storytelling device, and I was impressed by how deftly the film avoids becoming an overly sentimental picture. The filmmakers instead aim for the spirit of what Rogers’s show was trying to achieve in the first place – nurturing and attending to the needs of vulnerable children (and, in the case of Vogel, adults).
Here is the one issue, however – Vogel is not a particularly compelling character. I like Matthew Rhys as an actor, but his character here is a blank slate. He rarely makes choices, and though the film’s point may be that he’s stuck in a rut, his resistance to Rogers is only interesting for so long. Once we’re midway through the film, it starts to feel like we’re hitting the same beat over and over again.
It’s particularly frustrating when the excellent performances by Hanks and Cooper are pushed to the sidelines for Vogel’s stunted reawakening. I’m not certain whether the unique structure would have worked better with a different actor, or if it’s an issue with the way Vogel is written – but either way, it’s what keeps the film from achieving excellence.
There is still much to recommend about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – it is confidently and creatively directed by Heller (who made last year’s excellent Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Hanks seems certain to receive an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal (he has not been nominated for an Oscar in nineteen years, despite his masterful work in Captain Phillips, Bridge of Spies, The Post, Sully, Road to Perdition and Catch Me if You Can). And there is no question the film’s ending scene is deeply moving.
Like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood itself, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood deals with mature themes – death, abandonment, emotional trauma – in an accessible way for children who may not know how to talk about these issues. It is rated PG, and I would recommend the film for ages seven and up.