Based on an article that appeared in Esquire magazine, Marielle Heller’s 2019 film sees jaded investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a man grappling with a noticeably strained and distant relationship with his father (Chris Cooper), tasked with writing an article that will appear as part of a series that looks at American heroes, the subject of his assignment being the revered children’s show host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), the only interviewee who agreed to the interview, given Vogel’s reputation of criticising and vilifying his subjects, but although he’s initially hesitant and uncertain of whether Mr. Rogers is genuine or simply playing a character, Lloyd gradually warms to the beloved idol as the two men see the good in each other and with Fred’s help, Lloyd slowly starts to mend his relationship with his estranged father and family.
When it comes to the iconic Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, I’m surely in the exact same boat as so many other UK-based reviewers in that I was totally oblivious to the existence of the show growing up and it was only through references found in other TV shows (mostly Family Guy) as well as general word of mouth and eventually the 2018 documentary Won’t You be my Neighbor? that I came to learn of Fred Rogers and of the impact that he had on so many children and families during his lifetime, his program teaching kids so much about how to cope with some of the more unpleasant things in life as well as providing them with a nurturing and wholesome environment for them to get swept up in, all presided over by seemingly the nicest person who ever lived. So with a layman’s understanding of what the show was about, as well as an appreciation for Marielle Heller’s previous work, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I was more than happy to sit down and enjoy A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and I’m pleased to say that it sure didn’t disappoint as, though it’s not perfect, I found it to be a lovely film that left me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside!
Because, similar to something like Paddington 2, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a warm hug of a film as it pays loving tribute to the beloved presenter and aims to appeal to the child within us all, teaching us how to deal with “the mad” that we often feel, showing how kindness and politeness can go a long way, and to treasure the time that we spend with our families, all of this being achieved in a genuinely heartfelt manner that never becomes too cloying or unbearable, simply existing as a thoroughly warmhearted feature. The film makes the wise decision to not simply make this a Fred Rogers biopic and instead focuses on the experience of the interviewer, showing how Rogers’ influence and genuine good nature was really capable of melting the hardest heart (as also evidenced by his famed impassioned plea for funding), and as Lloyd gets to know Fred a little better throughout the course of the film, we too can gradually come to accept the teachings of the beloved figure and all in all, Lloyd’s side of the story is a worthy one but at the same time, I have to admit that it’s also a little thin; objectively speaking, there isn’t too much “meat” to the central story and as soon as the central father/son troubles are introduced to us, we know all too well that things will work out well and that we are just biding our time until the two of them eventually reconcile, which we know they will do.
As far as I can tell, the film does an admirable job of recreating the sets and locations that were featured in the central TV show and for someone who has never seen an episode, it made me feel as though I HAD actually watched it and it made me envious of those who were lucky enough to grow up watching the show (though we in the UK still had our fair share of wonderful children’s TV shows such as Rosie and Jim, Postman Pat and The Herbs, to name a few); the film also makes the decision to shoot many of the establishing shots as though they were part of the show, filming cityscapes and moving vehicles with models and props, and this is a very inventive touch as it seems to want to make the film appear as one long episode and it’s all a clear labour of love, but at the same time, the transition between the models and the “real world” is quite jarring and the rough editing proves problematic, the transitions not being as naturally smooth as they should have been. The film also has a pleasant score and we also get to hear several songs, the kind of ones that we may have heard at various points during the original TV show (including one heard by Mr. Rogers himself during the closing credits), and they effectively add to the pleasant nature of the film.
And, of course, a big reason why A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is such a lovely experience is the performance of the inherently likeable Tom Hanks; in surely one of the most ideally casted roles of quite some time, Hanks makes a huge and lasting impact in the role of Fred Rogers as he imbues the character with genuine warmth, heart, humour, kindness and an unflappable friendly nature, so much so that you can’t help but love him and there’s really nothing else that can be said – Hanks is just perfect and expectedly loveable in the role. As well as the other fine performers who make up the supporting cast, we also have Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel and he effectively displays the character’s cynical and closed-off demeanor (so much that I was getting quite annoyed that he didn’t just lighten up!) while gradually showing an increasing sense of empathy and understanding, and Chris Cooper plays yet another “emotionally distant father” character and he plays his part well within the film, he and Rhys working well together.