To all of you Mister Rogers fans who sat down in front of the TV every day for a stress-free, sometimes funny, often thoughtful visit with a gentle, genial, red-sweatered host … to all of you parents who had the good fortune to initiate those visits … to anyone who has never seen an episode of the long-running PBS show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” - you need to know that this film is not a biopic about Fred Rogers, nor does it chronicle the history of his show or how it was made. All of that can be found in the excellent 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Plenty of screen time in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is devoted to Tom Hanks’ superb portrayal of Fred Rogers - in and out of character, on and off the set (actually, it appears there wasn’t much of a difference; what you saw and heard on TV was pretty what you got in real life). But this film is much more about what coming in contact with Fred Rogers could do to you.
It’s constructed as an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” with Hanks ambling onto the simple set, donning the sweater and blue shoes, breaking into the familiar opening song (and doing it properly, singing “this neighborhood,” not “the neighborhood”), then showing a photo of and introducing a story about a friend of his named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), whose scowling, slightly bloodied face looks as if it’s seen better days. Then, as Mister Rogers tells that story, the film flashes back to show it.
In real life, in the late-1990s, Lloyd Vogel (a fictitious name for the writer Tom Junod) was a jaded, burnt-out investigative journalist who, working at Esquire Magazine, was assigned to do a brief profile on Rogers. But he wasn’t interested in the “puff piece” assignment, and took it only when his editor gave him no choice.
So off he headed, to Pittsburgh, where the show was made, with a “this is a waste of my time” chip on his shoulder that was in full bloom even as he was saying hello to - and being caught off guard by the calm and friendly aura of - his subject.
The film suggests that the kindly Rogers could sense when a person - even a total stranger - needed help, or at least a bit of friendship. And he could both sense and see - bruises on the face will do the trick - that Vogel was a man in need.
Revelations in the script slowly but surely explain why Vogel was walking around - and had been long before this assignment - with an overabundance of pent-up anger. Giving very little away here, it turns into a tale of a bad father-son relationship (and we get the usual remarkable performance from Chris Cooper as the father).
But while emphasis is put on Vogel’s problems - in his head, at home with his family, at work, trying to get Rogers to answer questions rather than ask them - this film couldn’t have its title if it wasn’t also about Fred Rogers. So, aside from having Hanks giving us a completely believable and recognizable Rogers - but never going the imitation route - we also get bits of insight into what made him tick from the people who work on his show and from his wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), as they speak with Vogel. And yes, Fred Rogers was a human being, so there were some warts.
But the film is warm and winning (and for a few minutes even bravely turns surreal), and anyone rooting for Mister Rogers to work his magic on Lloyd Vogel, just as he really did with Tom Junod, will not be disappointed. The flashback eventually returns to the TV show, where the sweater and shoes are exchanged for street clothes, Mister Rogers plays a little ditty on a piano, and audiences are going to leave the theater thinking how nice it is to be nice to others.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster; directed by Marielle Heller
With Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper