After a jaded magazine writer is assigned a profile of Fred Rogers, he overcomes his skepticism, learning about empathy, kindness, and decency from America’s most beloved neighbor.
Cast: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson,Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena, Tammy Blanchard, Noah Harpster
Director: Marielle Heller
Writers: Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was an institution for American children from 1968-2001, airing on public broadcast channel PBS. For years Mr Fred Rogers would help children, through the power of television, to deal with their feelings and to understand the world in a way few people can or have. In 2018, the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was released and was a commercial and critical success. With a renewed interest in the children’s TV icon, it isn’t surprising that a movie about Fred Rogers would have been quickly greenlit. The story that A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood chooses to tell might though.
The film centres around Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical investigative journalist for Esquire magazine. He is assigned to write a 400-word piece on Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), something that he is initially reluctant to do but after meeting him, Lloyd is intrigued in finding out if Fred really is as nice as he appears. Lloyd is also dealing with becoming a new father and his own estranged father (Chris Cooper) trying to come back into his life.
The decision to make a film about Mr Rogers that isn’t a biographical picture focused on him is sure to disappoint some people, especially if that is what you were expecting given Tom Hanks’ prominence in the marketing. I found this story far more interesting as it showed the effect Mr Rogers would have on people’s lives, specifically Lloyd, who is loosely based on the journalist Tom Junod whose article “Can You Say…Hero?” the film is based on. I’m not sure that a film a Fred Rogers origin story would be nearly as interesting as seeing him and his world from the point of view of an outsider to his life and life philosophy.
There are enough nods and touches to his life and the show that will be sure to please fans. Marielle Keller and her crew did a fantastic job recreating the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The film is told as if it is a long episode of the show, opening with Mr Rogers coming through the door like his does on the show and singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, the same song that started all 912 episodes of the show, and played in 4:3 format.
Tom Hanks is really great as Fred Rogers. It seemed like an easy piece of casting to get Tom Hanks, one of the most beloved actors playing a beloved children’s TV Icon, but Fred Rogers is a very different person to Tom Hanks or other characters he has played. Rogers is a calm listener, who takes in what he is told and doesn’t mind long pauses in conversations so he can find the right words. The pacing of his conversations and the general silence of the film at times may be off-putting to some but it is true to the man.
Matthew Rhys is unlikely to get the credit he deserves for his performance here as the entry point for a lot of people. He is stellar here as the protagonist and does a fantastic job going from cynic to believer. Rhys plays him as a prickly and abrasive figure but only ever borders on the realm of becoming unlikeable.