It’s difficult to follow up last year’s tremendous documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? with a dramatized Mr. Rogers story. However, director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) prove they are up for the challenge.
Cleverly staying away from a traditional biopic structure about the rise of Fred Rogers’ work with children and his television career, the movie instead focuses on the relationship between Fred and Esquire magazine journalist Lloyd Vogel (a fictionalized version of writer Tom Junod) and the events that led the reporter to pen the 1998 cover piece, “Can You Say … Hero?” The two characters’ interactions are the heart of the film and serve as a wonderful distillation of the effect Rogers’ words had on the generations of children with whom he shared his message.
Matthew Rhys is a terrific foil to Tom Hanks’ Mr. Rogers, instilling Lloyd with a strong balance of cynicism and sheer curiosity for how a man like Fred Rogers can exist in such a cold and unforgiving adult world. This is Lloyd’s story through and through, and while Rogers plays a large part in it, he’s a supporting character acting as a sort of spiritual guide for Lloyd as he struggles with the challenges of his career, fatherhood and forgiveness. While the disdain our lead has for interviewing Rogers in the early parts of the film comes off a little overblown, it actually winds up making the culmination of Lloyd’s character arc all the more satisfying.
What’s most surprising about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is how creative the direction is from Heller, who presents the movie as a long-form version of a traditional “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode, complete with Hanks talking directly to the camera on a stunning re-creation of the show’s set. It even goes so far as to make every landscape shot look as if it’s straight out of Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe, complete with crude model buildings and airplanes. One dream sequence around the film’s midpoint almost pushes this stylish approach too far, but after this rocky stretch, the filmmaking gets right back on track.
Of course, the main draw for audiences seeing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will be Hanks as the man in the famous red knit cardigan. They won’t be disappointed. Hanks gives his best dramatic performance since Captain Phillips (2013), and instead of making his interpretation of Rogers a straight impersonation, he suggests the mannerisms of the man through evocation.
While his voice is suitably soft and kind, it’s in the silences where Hanks proves the most convincing. Luxuriating in the spaces between the words, much like Rogers was known to do, he takes a deep, meaningful breath while staring into the camera as if the individual audience member is the most important person in the world to him at that very moment. Right from the film’s start, it’s pitch perfect.
Even with the stylish direction and phenomenal performance from Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood doesn’t break new ground in terms of biopics. Still, it’s a well-made tearjerker, and I like it just the way it is.