Like Fred Rogers himself, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a hard film not to like. If you’re looking for a biopic that’s all about Mr. Rogers, though, it’s not the easiest film to love. Rogers is truly a supporting player here with more attention going to an Esquire employee who interviewed him in the late-90s. This film has all the strengths and weaknesses of My Week with Marilyn, another film about an everyday person who meets a legend. The average joe is serviceable enough to carry the picture, but any scene involving the legend has a life of its own.
Matthew Rhys of The Americans gives a solid lead performance as Lloyd Vogel, who’s based on real-life journalist Tom Junod. Vogel has an estranged relationship with his father (Chris Cooper) and can at times be distant towards his own infant son, as well as his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson). Things aren’t going much better for Vogel at work. High-profile individuals refuse to talk to him on the heels of some controversies interviews he conducted. While it’s not mentioned in the film, the interview that really hurt Vogel’s career was with Kevin Spacey. It seems the only person willing to speak with the most cynical reporter in the world is the nicest neighbor in the world, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks).
Vogel doesn’t buy the whole nice guy shtick. He’s convinced that even the celebrated children’s show entertainer has a few inner demons. From the moment Rogers greets Vogel on the phone, however, he finds it increasingly hard to think of anything negative to say about him. Actually, Vogel is frustrated that Rogers is so genuinely caring and understanding. How can a human being be this kindhearted? It doesn’t make any sense in Vogel’s mind, but he begins to see the world differently after experience it through Rogers’ eyes. Thus marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As if being related to Abraham Lincoln wasn’t enough, Hanks is also apparently a sixth cousin of Rogers. This is just one of the many reasons why Hanks is perfectly cast in the role. The hair, makeup, and cardigans may complete the look, but Hanks does all the heavy-lifting here with a gentle voice and sincerity in every word he says. Just as he did as Forrest Gump, Hanks portrays Rogers as a man who finds sagacity in simplicity. Yet, the film wisely doesn’t turn Rogers into a holier-than-thou figure. Like the rest of us, Rogers was a human being fully capable of mistakes. What separates Rogers from most people is that he was willing to acknowledge and learn from those mistakes. Along the way, he’d do whatever he could to make another person’s day a little better. Whenever Hanks appears, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood indeed.
Hanks’ Oscar-worthy performance is so transcendent that one can’t help but wish the entire movie was about him. There’s an especially interesting conversation about Rogers’ relationship with his sons that could’ve been elaborated on. Instead, many scenes are dedicated to Vogel and his family, which – while not poorly handled – aren’t nearly as gripping and at times not even factual. Even if the film never quite reaches its full potential, director Marielle Heller has still made a film that’s very much in the spirit of Fred Rogers. It even cleverly works in the miniature sets and vehicles from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood during transition shots. If you want a film that fully embodies Rogers, the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is your best bet. If you want a spot-on portrayal of Rogers that ultimately spreads his message of goodwill, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is still a worthy outing.