A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
Last year’s beautiful documentary tribute to the late, great Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, offered such a comprehensive and moving tribute to the man and his work that, upon hearing of a fiction film on the same subject, I questioned its raison d’être. Why, so quickly on the heels of one masterful homage, did we need another, with an actor standing in for the real deal? After all, who can better proselytize Mister Rogers’ message of love, understanding and inclusion than Mister Rogers, himself, who left behind an ample treasure trove of television programs and interviews as evidence of his good deeds. How fortunate, then, that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the new movie from Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), doesn’t even try to replicate the previous film’s magic in dramatized form. Instead, it trains its lens on the transformative journey of a cynical journalist who initially resists Rogers’ charm only to later convert into a devoted acolyte. Though the script takes enormous liberties with the historical record – inventing events and rearranging others – it at least provides a refreshing approach to the material.
Matthew Rhys (FX’s The Americans) plays Lloyd Vogel, a journalist based on Tom Junod, who in 1998 was assigned to write a profile on Mister Rogers for Esquire magazine, from which this movie draws large portions of its structure. At first skeptical – Vogel has a reputation for aggressive takedowns – he assumes that Rogers must be hiding something, or have ulterior motives; no one can possibly be this genuinely sincere and kind. A new father, Vogel finds himself awkwardly transitioning into parenthood still consumed with hatred for his own dad, an alcoholic philanderer who abandoned the family when Vogel’s mother was sick. Though his wife, Andrea (a terrific Susan Kelechi Watson, NBC’s This Is Us), is understanding, it’s clear that it’s far past time that Vogel get it together and confront what ails him. Perhaps Mister Rogers is the cure.
Appealingly incarnated by Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies), Rogers is exactly as he appears, and takes an especial interest in Vogel and the article; we are told by one of his colleagues that he is particularly drawn to cynics. And so the two men engage in a verbal jousting match where Vogel thrusts and Rogers gently parries, though, as it turns out, Rogers is far savvier a missionary for compassion than his tender demeanor indicates. There is no hidden mystery to his selfless spirit, but nor is he guileless. He will break down Vogel’s defenses, one way or another, and do so to the journalist’s own benefit.
So far, so lovely. All involved are emotionally committed to the project, and it’s great fun to see Hanks as Rogers, whether at work on the TV set or out in the world. Rhys makes a perfect contrast to him, and the supporting players are equally fine, with Chris Cooper (Demolition), as Vogel’s dad, a wonderfully conflicted foil to his son. There is a tone of sentimental restraint throughout that makes the cathartic moments resonate with even greater intensity than they might in a louder film.
Unfortunately, what limits my appreciation for this entire exercise is the very real fact of its fiction. So much of what we invest in as viewers never happened (including almost the entire father-son plot, which is crucial to the movie). Why does this matter? Because the entire draw of a film like this is that it purports to be about a beloved, actual person. If half of what it shows comes from the minds of the writers, then I, for one, cannot help but feel somewhat betrayed, however engaging the performances and story. Then again, “The Land of Make-Believe” was an essential component of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, so perhaps it’s the only way to go. However one feels, there’s no question that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood leaves one feeling content that a man like Rogers existed in the first place.