'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' Is a Tender, Heartwarming Film Worthy of Mister Rogers Himself Directed by Marielle Heller
Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper
Published Nov 19, 2019The world could really use a Mister Rogers right about now. It's a sentiment I expressed in my review of last year's documentary on the beloved children's show host, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, and one that still rings true now. Fred Rogers continues to occupy a singular space in modern pop culture as one of its most wholesome figures, a man who let every single person know that they were loved, and went out of his way to figure out why. Last year's documentary went hard on who Fred Rogers was, while Marielle Heller's biopic explores just how he was able to make everyone who watched his show feel like he was talking directly to them, through a series of smart stylistic choices.
The film achieves this by — how else? — having its Mister Rogers (a perfectly cast Tom Hanks) talk directly to the audience, framing the film in its own episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, albeit a winking one. In this golden age of biopics, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood joins the likes of Rocketman by aping the style of its subjects, making a tribute to Rogers that honours his form as much as his content, employing play-set interstitials and changing aspect ratios to clever effect.
For all this, Rogers isn't even the main character of the film — that would be Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a misanthropic journalist with a habit of using his work as an escape from his personal life, including relationships with his wife, newborn son and estranged father. Though Rhys's curmudgeonly Vogel comes off as too dour in the film's opening act, the Rogers-centric framing narrative and the promise of their inevitable encounter keeps things compelling.
Hanks was the most logical choice to play America's purest orator, and he fills the cardigan expertly, nailing Rogers' unhurried demeanour and calming lilt. Hanks' Rogers is a little eccentric, in the most tender way. Where the documentary explored what it meant to be Fred Rogers, Beautiful Day digs into what it's like to be around him, to have interacted with his uniquely empathetic worldview. It's another timely reminder of the particular, saintly place Rogers occupies in the cultural canon, while also balancing it out with realistic reminders of the world around him. Whenever the film leans on Rogers' MO, they largely hit — what other film could pull off a minute of silence where the characters just tenderly stare at each other?
Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster's script smartly avoids trying to retell the classic Fred Rogers stories, instead mining the real-life experiences of journalist Tom Junod writing his Esquire profile on Rogers, using a singular lens to tell a universally relatable tale about the resonance of a beloved cultural figure. It doesn't tell you anything you wouldn't already know, but it's a reminder of what makes Rogers' legacy endure to this day.