When Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) and journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) sit down for an interview, the men share a physical space, but they exist in two separate realities. Lloyd is a cynic and a misanthrope with deep-seated daddy-issues. Believing that no man is a saint, Lloyd is ready to take Mr. Rogers down a peg.
Fred Rogers is an ebullient optimist; a gentle and considerate soul who ALWAYS sees meeting someone new as a wonderful chance to connect. I’m not spoiling anything to say that despite their opposing worldviews, by the end of the film, a beautiful friendship blossoms between these two men.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood doesn’t bother pulling the wool down over your eyes. This feel-good movie is as saccharine as you expect. But credit must go to the picture’s talented director, Marielle Heller, because damn it if you don’t enjoy every predictable beat along the way. Heller avoids the obvious – and schmaltziest plot routes – to craft a deeper, richer story that tugs at your heart in the most pleasurable ways.
Lloyd Vogel is an award-winning investigative journalist working at a top-tier magazine. But despite his career success, he’s a bit of a wreck. His reputation for hard-hitting takedown articles earns him a reputation as an asshole. When the film begins, celebrities don’t want to sit down with him to have their character shredded.
Lloyd doesn’t have his home life together either. He’s not the most present husband and father for his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and newborn child. And his resentment towards his estranged dad (Chris Cooper) still eats away at him. Lloyd’s simmering frustration finally boils over; he causes a scene at his sister’s wedding by slugging his old man.
After burning too many bridges, Lloyd’s editor assigns him a puff-piece profiling Fred Rogers. Lloyd reluctantly accepts, spurred on by the chance to expose the flaws of PBS’ patron saint. But a funny thing happens. Whenever they’re together, it’s like Lloyd isn’t the one calling the shots.
Rogers sees Lloyd’s pain and wants to help him heal. With time, Rogers pierces the journalist’s bitter emotional crust so that Lloyd’s long-buried feelings can bleed through to the surface. And as movie-of-the-week as this all sounds, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on a true story.
Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s script chooses a pitch-perfect framing device: the film examines Lloyd’s festering anger through an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Hanks’ Rogers character steps onto the set of the famous kid’s program singing the show’s theme song. And if you grew up watching the long-running series, these dazzling moments will give you the feels.
The scene mimics the program beat for beat as Rogers swaps out his shoes and sits down to address the camera. Rogers talks the audience through a very special episode about dealing with anger; specifically, Lloyd’s. This meta storytelling tactic is a stroke of genius. Rogers is the supporting character in Lloyd’s journey, and these TV segments, which pop up throughout the movie, give Hanks more screen time to charm viewers.
DP Jody Lee Lipes (Trainwreck) captures the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood sequences in the original style of the show. That means a lower picture quality, studio lighting, and a boxy aspect radio. These pleasurable and often hilarious meta moments produce a warm and fuzzy dreamlike quality reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s films.
Hanks turns in another fantastic performance that will be fun to talk about as awards races heat up. The Academy loves rewarding actors who perform in biopics. It’s easy to applaud people who physically disappear into their role, sure. But that’s as much about costume and makeup chicanery as it is about performance. Unlike the last two Best Actor winners, Gary Oldman and Rami Malek, Hanks doesn’t have the luxury of donning a fat suit or shoving fake teeth in his mouth. Instead, Hanks transforms with good old fashioned acting chops, a cardigan, and sensible shoes.
Hanks doesn’t look like Fred Rogers. And he doesn’t sound like him, either – although he does mimic the comforting rhythm of Rogers’ drowsy cadence. But Hanks is a pro, and he captures Rogers’ spirit, note for note, without an aesthetic crutch. Most of the time you will forget you’re watching the guy from Forrest Gump.
What’s most impressive, though, is how Hanks embodies two facets of the character. There’s Fred Rogers, the celebrity who hosted a children’s program and appeared on talk shows. But then there is also Fred, the husband, father, and friend that most of the world never got to see. Hanks infuses Fred, the civilian, with a different energy. He remains a deeply empathetic man, but he allows hints of Rogers’ doubts and sadness to seep in around the edges, hinting at a version of Rogers that the plot never fully reveals.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens a window into a world that I want to live in. It’s a place where children serenade their heroes on a NY subway train, family members drop longstanding grudges, and a kids’ show host lives up to impossible expectations. Despite the predictable material, Heller’s film delivers a magnificent payoff that will plant smiles on moviegoers faces. I went into this movie with a cynical mind and a jaded heart, but I walked away with a new perspective: sometimes it’s alright to meet your heroes.