On the heels of last year’s extraordinary documentary “Won’t you be my neighbor?” comes a fictionalized version of Fred Rogers. “A beautiful day in the neighborhood,” while a bit ungainly as a title, fully captures the essence of Fred Rogers through a bravura performance by Tom Hanks as the children’s program host.
The story begins with Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) entering his home on the program and putting on the now-iconic sweater. He brings out a picture board. The photos are behind pull-open doors. He exposes one snapshot of a man with a cut and bruise on the bridge of his nose. He introduces him as Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) and states that he is having issues with forgiveness.
Lloyd has been invited to his sister’s wedding. He is reluctant to go, as his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) also has been invited and actually may show up. Lloyd’s wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) encourages him to attend.
At the wedding, to which they have brought their newborn child, Jerry does indeed show up and makes a drunken toast. Later when Lloyd and Jerry are alone, Lloyd confronts his father about abandoning his mother when she was terminally ill. They get into a punching match, and Lloyd gets his nose injury.
Lloyd works for Esquire and they want a cover story on heroes. His editor assigns him to cover Fred Rogers. Lloyd is known for writing savage exposes of those he interviews. He is not thrilled about the assignment.
He nevertheless calls to make an appointment to speak to Fred and is surprised when Fred calls him back personally. Lloyd goes to the Pittsburgh studio of the show and has to watch part of it while he waits for his interview. He is convinced that the Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers is a persona but Fred’s longtime aide Bill Isler (Enrico Colantoni) tells him, to Lloyd’s disbelief, that there is no difference between Fred and Mister Rogers.
Fred carries a camera around and takes pictures of everyone he meets to share with his wife Joanne. When Lloyd finally gets to interview Fred, the host asks him questions about his life. Upon Lloyd’s return to New York, his father is camping in an automobile below his apartment. Lloyd refuses to speak to him.
Fred comes to New York and asks Lloyd to meet him at an event. Later they go to Fred’s apartment. On the way in the subway, Fred is recognized and the riders sing his theme song. At the apartment Fred wants to introduce Lloyd to his puppets, but this creeps the writer out. As Fred’s questions and comments about Lloyd’s relationship with his father become more and more direct, Lloyd flees.
Andrea has invited Jerry and his partner Dorothy (Wendy Makenna) into the apartment much to Lloyd’s dislike. As they argue, Jerry becomes seriously ill and is transported to a hospital. There Andrea and Lloyd argue about the fact that he wants to leave his father to his fate. He storms out.
The film is based on a true story. Journalist Tom Junod wrote an article about Fred Rogers and was deeply influenced by this encounter. However, other than the fact that Lloyd also is a journalist who interviews Fred, the similarities end there.
While the plot sounds mundane, it is intertwined with Hanks’ uncanny portrayal of Fred Rogers. He has so thoroughly captured the mannerisms and cadence of the children’s host that it is like watching a behavioral doppleganger. When Hanks is on screen, the entire dynamic of the picture is uplifted for the better.
The film is most successful when it captures the essence of Fred Rogers. Despite what some may consider his put-on calm demeanor, the ordained minister was a person who did not become that way by accident. He was a master of discipline and a student of human, especially child, behavior. To portray his ineffable personality and the fact that Fred Rogers worked at his craft is a masterwork which this movie accomplishes.
In a later scene when Fred enters Jerry’s house to meet the entire family, his mere presence evokes calm and happiness. The same is true of the subway scene. The film perfectly evokes the charisma and presence that he had.
The main difficulty of the movie is the fact that Lloyd and Jerry, despite the son’s long-standing animus toward his father, begin to mend their rift without any counseling and solely under the influence of Fred Rogers. Lloyd has serious anger management issues as well. I do not think that it is likely that even Fred Rogers could have had as much beneficial effect on Lloyd as the film portrays. Lloyd’s problems seem too deep for this relatively facile solution.
Besides Hanks’ Oscar-worthy performance, Watson is superb as the long-suffering wife. We, however, do not get enough of her character developed in terms of her past career before motherhood or of her as an independent person in her own right. Likewise, the chemistry between she and her on-screen husband is lacking. It is unclear why they ever hooked up in the first place given all of their issues, which include Lloyd being a rather absentee father.
I should note the marvelous production design on the miniature cities and studio sets. The attention to detail is marvelous, and this includes the puppets.
There is no doubt in my mind that seeing the documentary in tandem with this picture will enhance the enjoyment and appreciation not only of Fred Rogers but of the world he created for children. I would recommend this to viewers.
At a time of great ideological division in our nation, this movie could not be more timely in terms of showing that civility and kindness are possible. While focusing on Fred’s relationship with one person in trouble may not have been the best choice to bring this story to screen, the film succeeds at every level in portraying who Mister Rogers was on screen and off.
Four out of five stars
Tom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a timely story of kindness triumphing over cynicism, based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod. After a jaded magazine writer (Emmy winner Matthew Rhys) is assigned a profile of Fred Rogers, he overcomes his skepticism, learning about empathy, kindness, and decency from America’s most beloved neighbor.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson and Chris Cooper
Directed By: Marielle Heller
Written by: Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster
Inspired by the article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod