A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a biopic about Mr. Rogers, it's a biopic about the values that defined Mr. Rogers. That's an important distinction, one that allows it to avoid most of the usual conventions of films based on real people and, in turn, become something more original. After the superb documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, you might think there's no need for a second, dramatized movie on the beloved children's show host. The approach adopted by director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster makes it a perfect companion piece, though.
The main character is actually a writer, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). He works for Esquire magazine and has gained a reputation for penning hit pieces. Lloyd's outside life is tumultuous. Despite having a loving wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) and a baby boy, a lot of his emotional energy is put into negative things. That includes being angry at his father (Chris Cooper) who abandoned the family when Lloyd was a boy.
When his editor assigns him to write a profile of Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), Lloyd balks. Then he meets the man, who is calm and soft-spoken. When the cameras turn off, the genial host is no different than he is on-air. Lloyd is initially skeptical of that. The interview doesn't quite go as expected. Mr. Rogers has a way of turning the tables, of getting him to talk about his feelings. Their interactions stop being a profile for a magazine and evolve into something deeper – a genuine connection. Inspired by his subject's message about facing and managing feelings, Lloyd begins to look at the world around him, as well as the relationship with his dad, in a different way.
Making Lloyd the main character and Mr. Rogers a crucial supporting player is the key to why A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood works. Fred Rogers was a fascinating man. That said, it was the profound impact he had on viewers that is most notable. Focusing on how a troubled adult male is affected by the ideals he espoused gets to the heart of his enduring legacy in a way no traditional biopic ever could. A Beautiful Day reminds us that Mr. Rogers is a household name because there was fundamental truth in his words, and that generations of children grew up to be better people because they were exposed to him.
Heller utilizes an inventive approach to telling the story that, quite frankly, takes a little getting used to. Once you get on the movie's wavelength, that approach proves to be enormously effective. The opening scene is structured like an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, except the host tells us about Lloyd, the man whose story we're about to see. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood returns to this conceit several times, and also includes a couple fantasy-like sequences, including one in which Lloyd ends up in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Similarly, transitions between New York (where Lloyd lives) and Pittsburgh (where Rogers taped) are rendered with toy cars and fake buildings, just as in the opening of the show.
Matthew Rhys is very good as Lloyd, making the character's emotional transformation credible. The real draw, however, is obviously Hanks. The actor goes far beyond mere impersonation. He perfectly captures the very essence of Fred Rogers – the centeredness, the gentility, the way deep insights emerged via common language. There's probably no other actor today who could so naturally bring Mr. Rogers to life. Hanks wisely plays the man here, not the icon. He's phenomenal.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood celebrates the lessons Fred Rogers spent years teaching, while still giving glimpses into the fact that, like all of us, he experienced difficult feelings, too. (There's an especially great, subtle implication of that in the poignant final shot.) The recent resurgence in popularity of Mr. Rogers is likely due to how scary the modern world can seem. We're all looking for a dose of the reassurance he offered. This movie reinforces that love, compassion, and kindness are remedies for what ails us, no matter how old or young we are, provided we're courageous enough to embrace them.
out of four
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.