We’ve all been hearing about this one for about a year. “What is Tom Hanks going to do as Mister Rogers? Oh, the possibilities.” Well, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is finally here and I thought, going in, it would have more to say than that documentary. Boy, was I wrong.
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a writer for Esquire, gets into a fight with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), at his sister’s wedding reception and completely ruins things. That includes the chance to reconcile with his deadbeat alcoholic dad. Having the shiner to show for it, he is given the assignment to go to Pittsburgh and do an article on the most famous man in children’s programming, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). A simple 400-word puff piece, it turns into a strange friendship and therapeutic catharsis for Lloyd, who is taught the power of forgiveness and given one last shot at letting bygones be bygones with his ailing pop.
If the plot description sounds like it defies the trailer, that’s because it does. Lloyd is the real main character and Mister Rogers is a figure thrust into his life that acts as his conscience and the narrator of his saga.
Sadly, Lloyd – who is a fictional interpretation of the real article writer, Tom Junod – isn’t nearly as interesting as the filmmakers want him to be. That is to say as fascinating as old Fred is, an issue that might lie in the fact Lloyd’s life story is largely made up.
Don’t take that to mean Mr. Rogers doesn’t come with problems. Tom Hanks is a good actor, no question, but he reflects some of his more famous performances rather than a mirror image of Rogers. Hanks plays Fred Rogers like a quieter, subdued, and not as manic an iteration of Forrest Gump. Even his accent and cadence are the same. Nonetheless, his work here is easy Oscar bait; he’ll probably get nominated, just without taking home the win.
Marielle Heller directed last year’s you-blinked-and-missed-it dramedy Can You Ever Forgive Me? which deals with author turned forger Lee Israel. In that film, Heller asked you to have sympathy for a mouthy, boozing, washed-up writer who turned to illegal activity to be relevant. With Beautiful Day, she banks on kindness vs. skeptical cynicism and it works at tugging the heartstrings. There just feels like a payoff besides “Wow, Mister Rogers really is a nice guy!” is missing.
She throws in so many memorable Rogers-isms such as his miniature models that are used for the opening credits, establishing shots, and transitions. His puppets become characters unto themselves, much as they did on the long-running show, and serve as cues in a few surreal dream sequences. Each of these tactics in addition to occasional dabbling in Mr. Rogers’s production values and aspect ratio turns the movie into something approaching an art film. The thing is it’s an exercise in style over substance.
Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood won’t ruin your childhood, but it won’t stay with you long after viewing either. Like a feature-length episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, it plays out like an extended anecdote. I left the theater not thinking about it and finding it lacking. It’s a meek, by-the-numbers version of what it could’ve been and isn’t justified as a theatrical release. This could have hit Amazon Prime or Netflix and you wouldn’t know the difference; neither would the Academy.