Since “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Morgan Neville’s recent documentary on Fred Rogers, was so good (and surprisingly successful), a purely biographical movie about the iconic PBS children’s show host would have been redundant, and Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Marielle Heller were wise not to go that route. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks, instead aims to reveal Rogers’ personality and influence by focusing on his benign impact on a single individual.
It’s a different approach to the character, but unfortunately different isn’t necessarily better, or even particularly good.
The film uses a 1998 Esquire profile on Rogers written by Tom Junod as a jumping-off point. In it, Junod described how Rogers had taken a special interest in him, become a fast friend, and helped him turn his life around, encouraging him to set aside the deep-seated cynicism he had become known for (especially after an earlier piece he’d written on Kevin Spacey) and embrace as an ideal Rogers’ message of radical kindness.
Harpster’s script is very loosely derived from Junod’s lengthy appreciation (titled “Can You Say…Hero?”). It begins with Rogers (Tom Hanks), on his show, introducing his young viewers to his new friend, an Esquire staff writer named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who, from his photo, is seriously troubled (as well as showing scars from a recent physical altercation). He’s married to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) a lovely, supportive woman, and they have a sweet infant son. But Vogel is consumed by anger at his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper), an alcoholic who abandoned his wife and Lloyd many years earlier.
Now Lloyd has been forced to engage with Jerry at his sister’s wedding. It has not gone well; an embarrassing fistfight ensued, and though his father tries afterward, in his raucous way, to apologize, Lloyd rejects him outright even though Andrea urges him to come halfway. It’s soon revealed that Jerry is terminally ill, and Rogers intervenes, in his quiet but determined fashion, to urge Lloyd to follow the path of forgiveness and dispel the unhealthy rage that’s destroying him.
There’s little question that the real Fred Rogers was a good man, not only well-meaning but as dedicated to spreading a beneficial message in his unique fashion as any ordained Presbyterian minister (which, in fact, he was). But though here he protests to Vogel that he’s no saint (a point made by his wife Joanne as well), the film rather portrays him as one, presenting him as unfailingly gentle and humble, never condescending to anyone, especially the children he speaks to with understanding and respect. It’s no wonder that everybody loves him: in a scene embellished from Junod’s account, he’s serenaded with his theme song by a crowd of fellow passengers on a subway car. And though his staff might be nonplussed by his unpredictability, they’re utterly loyal.
Hanks is a natural as Rogers. He might not be a close match physically, but mimics Rogers expertly, conveying his simple manner—and innate piety—but avoiding any suggestion of foolishness or naïveté. One gets the feeling of inner complexity, even if the film never really explores it. That’s part of the problem: there’s no more depth to Rogers than there was to Forrest Gump, and the performance is basically a one-note affair, which certainly could be accused of being mannered.
Rhys and Cooper, meanwhile, have shown themselves in the past to be capable of subtlety, but Heller doesn’t ask it from either of them. Their performances are over-the-top affairs, not only in the earlier stages—when Rhys is at a constant low boil and Cooper is playing to the rafters—but in the latter ones, when they have become a devoted father-and-son again under Rogers’ influence. Watson brings a steadying presence in support, but the calm she and Hanks represent merely acts as a contrast to their hyper approach, magnifying rather than justifying it.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is more than competent on the technical side. Production and Jade Healy and Arjun Bhasin have done yeoman work in reconstructing the appearance of Rogers’ PBS set—both the living-room and the cardigan, and the magic kingdom with its puppets. Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography retains a note of naturalness (the TV-set sequences even have a touch of videotape about them), while Anne McCabe’s editing is smooth, bringing things in at under two hours, and Nate Heller’s music avoids the obvious temptations to remain relatively unobtrusive.
The final verdict is that while one can appreciate the makers’ desire to disclose what was special about Fred Rogers indirectly, their movie doesn’t escape sanctimoniousness, even hagiography. It needn’t have been some sort of cynical tell-all (of the sort Junod did on Spacey, though in hindsight one might well see it differently); but it might have done more than elevate the article the writer published about Rogers into a sort of scriptural parable about unlimited forgiveness. In short, it simply tries too hard to be inspiring, and in doing so proves a disappointment.
Watch the documentary instead.