A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
**1/2 (2.5 out of four)
There’s a scene in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood in which Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), known to the nation as the gentle and soft-spoken children’s television host Mr. Rogers, is by himself in the studio, softly playing a tune on the piano before suddenly banging down on the keys with his fists.
It’s a startling moment, more so since it’s the only time in the entire picture that Mr. Rogers isn’t the embodiment of serenity. Was he momentarily angry at his thoughts? Was he exorcising some frustrations? Was he merely goofing around?
The movie doesn’t answer the question — come to think of it, the movie doesn’t answer many questions when it comes to the beloved individual at its center. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a perplexing picture. Its title promises a biopic about Mr. Rogers — a companion piece to last year’s acclaimed documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Instead, it turns out that Mr. Rogers isn’t even the star of his own movie — rather, he only appears every now and then, since the film isn’t about him as much as it’s about Tom Junod.
Junod, you may or may not know, was the award-winning reporter who wrote a popular piece on Mr. Rogers for Esquire. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a loose adaptation of Junod’s article for Esquire and Junod’s encounters with Mr. Rogers, with the character here renamed Lloyd Vogel and played by Matthew Rhys.
I get it. Marielle Heller, who directed Melissa McCarthy to an Oscar nomination for the intriguing Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, scripters of the recent Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, have opted to make a movie that’s less about Mr. Rogers and more about Mr. Rogers’ influence on the hardened and cynical world surrounding him.
As Exhibit A, we get a story about a mopey man who, despite having a loving wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) and a new baby, can’t let go of the distant past and continues to resent his estranged father (Chris Cooper). But whenever matters get too difficult for Lloyd, along comes Mr. Rogers, periodically swooping in like Lou Ferrigno in The Incredible Hulk to save the day.
We certainly need a comforting movie in these uncomfortable times, but that movie was Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which showed that Fred Rogers was a complicated individual who nevertheless practiced what he preached. Morgan Neville’s richly detailed documentary never allowed the myth to eclipse the man, which isn’t the case here.
Hanks is excellent as the saintly icon, and whenever he’s off the screen (which is a lot), we miss him fiercely and are forced to resign ourselves to yet another standard drama about a guy with daddy issues.
And with Mr. Rogers MIA for great stretches, we’re never allowed much access to this compelling person, requiring us to rely solely on reputation.
Heller’s direction is inventive and Hanks’ portrayal is unimpeachable, but Fred Rogers ultimately remains a cypher, as untouchable and out of reach as those three ghosts that turned Ebenezer Scrooge into a better person.