A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by Marielle Heller
I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever actually sat through an entire episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and if I had it was WAY too long ago for me to remember, so while the guy has always been a presence in my life simply by way of cultural osmosis, I never really got to experience him the way that many other people did. The impact was always felt, especially when PBS and public television were still things before the rise of YouTube and streaming services, but what made the show work so well and what made Mr. Rogers such an enigmatic figure for many generations? Well I guess if I wanted to know the answer to those questions then there wouldn’t be a better time to do it then this brand new biopic, right? Well actually the documentary from last year would probably be the best bet which I still need to see at some point, but this movie is a decent runner up! Does it
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that this movie is mostly about Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), but ACTUALLY the movie is primarily focused with Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys); a writer for Esquire Magazine who’s been assigned to cover Mr. Rogers for a piece about heroes right at the time he’s dealing with some serious issues in his personal life. You see, Lloyd has spent the better part of his life avoiding his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who did some really awful stuff in the past that Lloyd has had no reason to forgive, and yet his sister (Tammy Blanchard) gives him an opening back into their lives at her wedding which eventually leads to Lloyd’s wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) wanting to make inroads with his as well; a movie that utterly baffles Lloyd and puts a serious strain on their relationship which was already under a great deal of stress as they just had a baby. All this is swirling around in his head which isn’t helping his lack of enthusiasm for writing a puff piece about a children’s entertainer, and yet something about Fred Rogers intrigues Lloyd; particularly the utter sincerity with which he approaches everything and everyone around him which is either a genuine extension of himself or possibly a mask for something much darker than anyone would have assumed from such a sweet man they see on television. Is there truly something there for Lloyd to uncover behind the kind face and the red sweaters? Will these interviews with such a noble seeming man perhaps give him some perspective on his own issues and how he’s been handling them up to this point? Most importantly of all, do we get any juicy behind the scene details on the set of the show!? Probably not, but we can always dream, right?
This movie is not quite what I was expecting and I’m not sure that’s really a good thing. If you’re going into this hoping for a Mr. Rogers biopic, even one that’s about a certain moment in his life, you’ll probably be disappointed because the truth of the matter is he’s really a secondary character in someone else’s story. A key character perhaps who drives our true protagonist forward in his character arc, but I don’t know if I would have had nearly as much interest seeing this if they had called it Writer Guy’s Daddy Issues which frankly would have been a much more accurate title. There are some GREAT moments in this to be sure with Tom Hanks’s performance as well as some really creative visual storytelling that integrates some of the more famous motifs and concepts from the original TV show into the narrative here, but it’s all in service of a story that I just had no investment in.
To a certain extent it feels like they didn’t even want to make a movie about Lloyd Vogel and his broken relationships because they look and sound much less impressive than anything with Mr. Rogers; like they’re shot by a second unit with experience primarily in television. There is a lot of creativity and interesting stylistic conceits throughout the movie with some genuinely emotional and exhilarating moments, but they only crop up whenever we’re in close proximity to Fred Rogers; from the unique framing device of the movie to the relatively straightforward moments yet impactful moments like the scene where everyone sings on the train. Even some of the best dark moments in the movie aren’t about the guy’s dad dying of Movie Sickness but center primarily on Fred Rogers and Lloyd’s contentious interactions with the guy; to the point that you start to wonder if Lloyd may be right about Rogers being too good to be true which is what you WANT to see explored in a movie about a person like this.
Speaking of whom, what exactly do we get of Mr. Rogers in this movie? Well to be blunt, there simply isn’t enough there to compensate for the rest of the movie being rather bland, but there are still quite a few fun moments with him peppered throughout the story. I’m a sucker for any film that takes place on a set of some kind, and it was rather enjoyable getting at least a glimpse into the process by which the show was made. Tom Hanks can’t quite disappear into the role, but he gets the emotional core of what Fred Rogers represented for so many people, and there’s a surprisingly solid supporting cast around him that elevates his performance even more. I particularly liked Maryann Plunkett as his wife Joanne Rogers as she has perhaps the most accurate perspective on Fred considering she lives with the guy instead of knowing him simply by reputation or even in the still somewhat performative space of working at a job with others. With guys like Mr. Rogers (and his hippie counterpart Bob Ross) there’s always the temptation to utterly mythologize them and make them a guiding light in our troubled times, and while we can be reasonably certain that the guy didn’t do anything particularly heinous in his lifetime that has yet to be unearthed, there was a human being behind that persona we saw on TV, and the best parts of this movie are when we try to explore that, such as the scene where Lloyd talks to Joanne and asks her what it’s like to live with a saint. Had the movie been ALL about that instead of dividing it’s time between that and Lloyd’s family struggles I think we would have had the movie that was not only advertised in the trailers but one that would have had a bit more of a punch to it as the topic is an interesting one and there are few examples out there as “perfect” as Fred Rogers for considering those questions.
As I’ve said, the movie really loses me with Lloyd’s story which I found to be bland and maudlin. I’d be hard pressed to think of a theme that is more played out in all forms of media than Daddy Issues and I just didn’t with this particular version of it. Honestly, and maybe this will undercut all my criticism of the movie, I just didn’t see why Lloyd HAD to allow his father back into his life in order to “become whole again” or whatever. Sure, there’s a certain amount of wisdom in not staying angry at someone, but Chris Cooper’s performance in this (a good performance by the way which could have worked in a different version of this story) doesn’t make much of a case for himself that he isn’t a toxic jerk especially to his son. It feels like we didn’t have enough time to flesh out the nuances of their relationship so everything is drawn too broadly, but if they HAD given more screen time to that aspect of the movie then there would have been even less Mr. Rogers stuff and frankly that’s what everyone is there to see.
If this movie does nothing else it will make you want to see that documentary from last year. I certainly doubt that was the INTENT here, but the movie is what it is, and what it is is about a third of a really interesting exploration of Mr. Rogers as he was seen by the world playing second fiddle to a father and son storyline that just doesn’t have as much material to work with. I’m sure a lot of people will connect with the struggles that Lloyd is going through and will find comfort in the way that Fred Rogers and his teachings can help process those complicated feelings, but there’s just not enough of him there for me to overlook what I didn’t find all that interesting about Lloyd’s story. There’s still a proper Fred Rogers biopic to be made and if the spotlight continues to shine on his legacy then I think we’ll get it sooner rather than later; hopefully with Hanks still in the role and even him playing young Fred Rogers with those super special effects that are all the rage now. I mean seriously what’s the point of Hollywood spending all that money on nerw CG technology if it’s not to eventually make Tom Hanks play BOTH parts in a remake of Big?