There might be a cynical part of the world that hears the idea of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and sees it as a cheap cash-in on both nostalgia and the success of last year's award-winning documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? Why bother going back to cover the ground of Mr. Rogers when it was done so well before? Why position it in such a way where it's so easy to determine this was made with the potential accolades on its mind? Did the world need this? The proof is in the pudding as it were, as Neighborhood builds itself on a foundation of necessity from the first frame, and its primary target is our built-in cynicism about everything around us, even this movie.
Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd Vogel, a magazine journalist tasked with writing a brief blurb about Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for a new issue. Vogel's reputation precedes him; he plants himself as a brick wall of reality with no rose-colored glasses in sight. Rhys plays up the bitterness to a degree that makes him profoundly unlikable in a matter of minutes, and the speed at which his obnoxiousness shines through is pretty remarkable. In the film, he's traveling down a different path from Hanks' portrayal of Rogers, who exists like a Hannibal Lecter to Vogel's Clarice Starling (sans the killing, naturally), but the pair have to meet, and, because of this, will change.
Both are delivering masterful performances. Hanks embodies Rogers in ways that transcend a mere impression for the camera. Facial ticks, gestures, and specific words breathe life into this portrayal. It's a role that he gets lost in and the familiarity of the subject bleeds the line between reality and fiction for the viewer. Hanks is simply stunning here while Rhys delivers a grounded take on a person deflated by their pain.
Director Marielle Heller guides the movie through our memories of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, framing the narrative into what amounts to a grand episode of the series. Though clearly not on a PBS budget, the humble motifs used throughout the series are replicated in charming ways. We learn about our characters in ways that set the movie up as a lesson from our TV friend, but the achievement in Heller's work is how engrossing it becomes after the setup. Certainly the message of the movie is always present, but because of the reality inherent to Vogel's story and the passion with which Rhys plays it, we can be absorbed by it and live in it. The inherent empathy that Mister Rogers displayed in his series is alive in the film and carries you out afterward like a warm hug.
It would be a disservice to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to sum it up as a “Fred Rogers biopic.” Rogers is certainly its beating heart, but his presence isn't an examination of his life. We do learn about him in biographical ways, but this a story about learning to forgive and be vulnerable. Hanks embodies this through Rogers even as the film comes to a close, reminding us that the man many consider a deity of niceness had his frustrations, too. In the end, though, he was there to remind us about how we can use our feelings, be they hurt or intact.
At the heart of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood are its lessons. Everyone still needs time to grow and process what they're feeling, and at their core, everyone is a person looking to connect. The film tells us that it's okay to feel cynical in the world, but that by opening up we can see life for more than just its faults. Everyone has bad times and gets upset, even Fred Rogers, but at the end of the day, it's our connections that let us see the good in the world and remember why life is worth living.
Rating: 5 out of 5
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is now playing.