FILM REVIEW – A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. With Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett. Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster. Directed by Marielle Heller. Rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language. 108 minutes.
Fred Rogers was a very special person. In A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, Rogers (portrayed by Tom Hanks) is referred to as a “living saint,” a phrase that makes his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) bristle because she knows him as a real person, not someone beyond human experience. What made him special was on display in last year’s superb documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It was an inherent decency, and how he treated everyone he met as a fellow human being, worthy of his attention and respect. (This reviewer experienced that himself when he interviewed Rogers on two occasions, the first time consisting of several minutes of Rogers asking him questions.)
Hanks perfectly captures that in this dramatization based on a real-life situation where Rogers befriended a troubled reporter who had come to do a magazine profile of him. In an imaginary scene from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the gentle host addresses us in the audience about some of his friends, leading to him showing a photo of a battered Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Vogel has issues with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), and gets into a fight with him at his sister’s wedding. Married to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and a new father himself, he is clearly troubled.
For a movie ostensibly about Rogers we spend an awful lot of time on Vogel’s story, and it’s not until well into the film when Vogel arrives in Pittsburgh where Rogers shoots his show. (The studio scenes in the film were shot at Rogers’ actual studio at WQED in Pittsburgh.) It quickly becomes clear that to be in Fred Rogers’ orbit requires readjustment. The recording of the show is well behind schedule because Rogers is engaging with a troubled little boy who is visiting the studio with his parents.
The arc of the movie is how gently and non-judgementally Rogers gets Vogel to deal with the things in his life he’s been avoiding, including forgiving the father who had abandoned the family when his mother fell ill. It’s not easy, and the movie touches on how Rogers has dealt with the troubles and frustrations in his own life, but the drama is in Vogel’s story. If not a saint, Rogers remains the same throughout, getting satisfaction from easing the burden of his new friend.
Audiences expecting a story exploring Rogers’ life will be disappointed, but it won’t be because of the performance by Hanks. In a career that has ranged from broad comedy to serious drama, his turn as Rogers enters the pantheon of his greatest roles. One can see why Rogers’ widow has endorsed the movie, because it captures what made him special while keeping him grounded in the real world. Rhys and Cooper and Watson have the responsibility of carrying the story forward, with Rhys being the audience stand-in who can’t quite get Rogers… until he finally does. It is that journey that allows his character to face his father and the anger he’s been carrying.
What “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” leaves us with is an appreciation of Tom Hanks, who is almost certain to get yet another Oscar nomination for his performance, and more particularly, an appreciation for Fred Rogers, and how much we could use someone of his temperament today.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.