There is a scene in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood where jaded journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is trying to interview Fred Rogers. The real Fred Rogers. Not Mister Rogers, the character he plays on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, obviously implying that the kind, empathetic man on screen is nothing more than a persona. To his credit, Fred (played by Tom Hanks) doesn’t respond beyond a rather intense, bemused look. But with such a suggestion, Lloyd has made his cynicism with the world, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, quite clear.
In essence, this scene perfectly sums up what A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is really about. In a world full of pessimism, unfairness, and pain, could a man like Mister Rogers actually exist? A man so unflinchingly kind and decent, both on-screen and off. A man who is so beloved by the public that he lends an ear to anyone who asks, who visits and meets with sick children on a daily basis, who takes the emotional pain of others upon himself if it means lifting some of their burdens… if only for a little while. Surely a man like that does not exist. At least not without some baggage, or skeletons in his closet.
And this is clearly what Lloyd Vogel believes when he is given the task of writing a short piece on the children’s show host for Esquire magazine’s “hero” edition. You see, Lloyd Vogel is somewhat problematic. He’s alienated himself with his truth-telling journalism that celebrities don’t want to speak to him for this issue. Only one agrees to do so – Fred Rogers.
Lloyd is married with a new baby, but he is finding fatherhood difficult and remains estranged from his own father, Jerry (Chris Cooper in a wonderful, understated role). Lloyd’s anger and resentment towards Jerry are affecting his work, his marriage, and his own mental health. When Lloyd meets Fred Rogers, he finds himself on a journey of forgiveness and healing his own wounds through self-discovery, though not without some difficulty. With his temper and pessimism, Lloyd could have descended quite quickly into an extremely unlikeable character. His progression is what drives the movie, and you have to be able to root for Lloyd, even at his worst. Thankfully Rhys gives an emotionally nuanced portrayal of a man who has lost his way, suffering from a lifetime of grief and self-doubt. As he gets to know Mister Rogers better, he begins to shed all of those things holding him back, finally accepting the things he cannot change, and embracing the things that he can.
It’s near impossible to find an actor talented and beloved enough to embody the sincerity of Fred Rogers without coming across as a pale imitation, but Tom Hanks pulls it off beautifully. Never once did I think, that’s Tom Hanks playing Mister Rogers. He fully embraces everything that made Fred Rogers who he was – the smile, the quiet tone, the genuine interest in everyone he came across. He is so wonderfully subtle in his performance, and yet still commands the screen whenever he appears.
It should be noted that this is not a biopic of Mister Rogers in the least. The story’s protagonist is Lloyd. The journey is Lloyd’s. Admittedly I would have loved to have had a little more of Mister Rogers, but I understood what Marielle Heller was attempting to do here. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood plays as an actual episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but for adults. We realize that very quickly as the opening scene is Hanks, as Fred Rogers, singing the familiar intro to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, changing into his red sweater and blue tennis shoes, and then talking to us about his new friend, Lloyd. We learn about Lloyd through a picture board, and the photo Mister Rogers uses to introduce us to Lloyd is one of Lloyd’s confused, bloodied face – which he received courtesy of his father at his sister’s wedding.
Heller transitions locales in the film by using Pittsburgh and New York miniatures, like the ones you would see in the Neighborhood of Make Believe. The score is reminiscent of the enchanting twinkling music featured in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The nostalgia is strong, and it’s welcomed. Through Heller’s careful direction, the movie avoids becoming too sugary sweet and sentimental, which given the subject matter, could have been quite easy to do.
At one point in the movie, Fred and Lloyd are at a Chinese restaurant, and Fred asks Lloyd to take a moment to sit in silence and think about all of the people who have loved him into being. And for a full sixty seconds, Lloyd does just that. As does everyone eating in the restaurant. And then Fred breaks the fourth wall, looking at us, the audience, and we too are remembering those who loved us and helped shape who we are as people. It’s an artistic gamble that could have been comedic or insincere, but instead, it’s incredibly disarming and what I believe to be the most powerful moment in the movie.
But Heller also keeps the film grounded by keeping Fred Rogers shrouded in mystery, only hinting at the heavier weight that he carries on his shoulders while he swims laps, and then in one, perfect moment towards the end of the film where he plays piano alone in his television studio after wrapping for the day.
While A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is primary Lloyd Vogel’s story of redemption and forgiveness, it’s also, more importantly, an ode to Fred Rogers and everything he stood for, which was to be patient, loving and empathetic to each other.