After the endearing Won’t You Be My Neighbor documentary, I questioned the need for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood even with the perfect casting of Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. Turns out the smart play is to not focus on Fred Rogers at all, but to use him as the gateway to a heartfelt take on family and forgiveness.
The film is based off the Nov. 1, 1998 Esquire article by Tom Junod, who after spending enough time with Rogers struck up a friendship with him. And really, from childhood to adulthood the thought of being friends with Mr. Rogers seems pretty cool.
Matthew Rhys plays Junod as the pseudonym Lloyd Vogel at Junod’s insistence due to the liberties taken by screenwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue to spice the story up for the big screen. Thankfully most of the best Rogers’ moments in the film actually occurred.
Lloyd has been cranking out hard-hitting exposes and he scoffs at the notion of doing a fluff piece on Mr. Rogers. But with new drama involving his absentee father (Chris Cooper, August: Osage County), Lloyd is happy to find a distraction even as his workload continues to put stress on his marriage. Lloyd’s schedule is basically forcing his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson, This is Us) to raise their newborn child alone.
It doesn’t take long for the cynical Lloyd to realize there’s something special about Rogers who doesn’t seem to possess a sarcastic bone in his body.
Hanks plays Rogers as immensely likable and welcoming. After the opening sequence, I felt transported back to childhood settling in for another mesmerizing trip to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
From various accounts, including the documentary, Rogers really was that genuine and sincere a person. It’s rare to watch films these days where a character is so aspirational simply for being nice to others. Maybe you don’t have puppets handy or can’t play a tune, but the film definitely suggests audiences can carry out Rogers’ legacy by treating each other better.
This is not another Mr. Rogers movie as Hanks is clearly positioned in a supporting role. Rhys does a solid job as a man who thought he was broken before gaining another perspective on his past and present after encountering Rogers. Kelechi Watson and Cooper also deliver strong supporting performances that show the impact of Lloyd holding on to his anger and resentment all these years later.
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Director Marielle Heller ingeniously frames the film like an episode of the iconic show. It’s a clever way to both showcase Hanks’ Rogers while allowing for the story to unfold to spotlight Lloyd and his family drama. Transitions are set up like the miniature sets on the show and it was unexpectedly emotional to see structures representing the World Trade Center.
There’s a few moments that don’t quite work, but they’re significantly outnumbered by the bold chances that do namely a restaurant conversation with a side of silence.
All of Merissa Lombardo’s (The Magnificent Seven) set design is impressive from the meticulous recreation of the television series set and the overall flavor of the 90s from the huge tube monitors. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes provides some harsh lightning with just a touch of blurriness to give the film a not-so HD presentation.
There’s also some fun camera tricks that digitally insert Hanks into Rogers’ interviews on other TV shows. Nate Heller’s (Heller’s brother) score really felt like it would have fit in seamlessly with a standard episode of the show as it’s upbeat and hard to resist.
There might be a slight feeling of a bait and switch given the advertising of the film, but this is a beautiful film for those willing to see why Rogers’ message remains as vital and important maybe more now than ever.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures