James Clay // Film Critic
Thinking about Fred Rogers brings a sense of calmness to us all. Those who grew up with the esteemed host of the children’s program know the random acts of kindness he displayed. He touched us all and delivered a show that had a significant influence on child development.
Last year’s documentary, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR, by Morgan Neville, delved into the impact he made on a diverse set of individuals to a tear-jerking degree. It’s a remarkable film that provides you with all you need to know about the man we remember as Mr. Rogers.
Now his story has been transformed into a narrative feature, aptly titled with another one of Rogers’ catchphrases: A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. It comes from director Marielle Heller (CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?), and it stars beloved actor Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers.
In this film, Mr. Rogers spreads his wisdom around like fairy dust as he pops in with his oddly detached, yet sage advice. Heller’s film doesn’t have any magical realism elements. As influential the memory of Rogers is in the minds of millions of people, her film options him into an all-knowing presence.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD isn’t based upon the life and times of Rogers. It doesn’t chronicle his decades-long television career, but rather instead focuses on an encounter in 1998 that caused him to cross paths with grumpy Esquire reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Lloyd has been assigned to write a blurb about Rogers for a piece on heroes. Of course, he’s reticent to write a puff-piece on the lionized figure, but Rogers takes an instant liking to Lloyd and invites him out to Pittsburgh for a visit.
The script by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue (the upcoming MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL) focuses on painfully dull characters. They are full of strange entitlements and stunted growth that is really beneath the caliber of filmmakers and actors associated with this project.
Sure, Lloyd has a wonderfully successful wife (Susan Kelechi Watson), an infant son and a seriously killer editorial job. And I’m sure the filmmakers had good intentions. However, Lloyd is straight-up dealing with boorish middle-class problems and relationship issues with his estranged father (Chris Cooper) that warrant nothing more than a casual shrug. Meanwhile, Lloyd is being interrogated by Rogers, and the reveals are uninspiring.
Hanks is reliable as ever playing Rogers. With an otherworldly manner of speaking (like he’s in search of his next discovery), Hanks portrays Rogers as a Buddha disguised in a red cardigan and khakis, and he wears the costume well. However, it’s nothing more than an impression and lacks the pathos of impact from the people who were genuinely affected by Rogers.
The filmmaking style Heller displayed in her brilliant debut, THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, is utilized to great effect in this film. Her scene transitions and framing devices work well. She opens the story with a meta version of MR. ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD where Hanks introduces the audience to his fabricated show, which turns into a nice flare of surrealism. Anytime we spend with Rogers inside his television show —which is formatted to look like the original broadcasts — the film begins to find what it’s been searching for in its human characters. These scenes, by cinematographer Jody Lee Lips (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), smoothly move about Rogers’ studio, giving us peeks behind the curtain and inviting us into Rogers’ tender process of running the show.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is an unassuming film that gently shows Fred Rogers’ uncanny ability to break the cycle of cynicism that’s inflicted upon the world. He’s an undeniably remarkable human being whose screen time would have had more appeal exploring the intimate spaces surrounding the many questions raised about his creative process. Heller’s depiction leaves lots of space to explore deep emotions through Rogers’ singular perspective, but the result is a mile wide and an inch deep.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD screened at Toronto International Film Festival. An encore screening will be held on September 14. Visit tiff.net for more information. Sony Pictures will release the film on November 22.