A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is by the same director as Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Marielle Heller. Both films have stories about people who are deeply cynical who through some circumstance find someone who helps them find a way to navigate through life. The film is not a bio-pic of Fred Rogers, who is played here by Tom Hanks, who is actually a 6th cousin of Rogers. Hanks had always been set to play the role, from 2012 onwards; his son Colin Hanks has also player Rogers in a TV skit. In the film The ‘Burbs, Hanks is also seen watching an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The film is really about Tod Junod, an Esquire magazine journalist whose name in the film has been changed to Lloyd Vogel at his request (primarily because he felt they exaggerated his complicated relationship with his father). Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys, is a journalist but his problems with alcohol and is generally just confrontational and difficult. Esquire is doing a feature on heroes, and he is assigned to interview Rogers. Vogel thinks the interview is beneath him, but he needs the money, and Rogers is the only person who will agree to be interviewed by him. He goes to the WQED studio in Pittsburgh, and as always with Fred Rogers, when he is being interviewed Rogers turns the tables on the interviewee, asking personal questions that Vogel does not want to answer, especially about his father. A life-changing friendship blossoms, and that’s the gist of the film, with family issues along the way. Vogel’s father is played by Chris Cooper, who turns in what is probably the best performance of the movie.
The film is not as good as the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and when they saw the documentary together, Hanks actually said to Heller: “Is there a reason to make our movie?” There is some point to that. The documentary was so brilliantly done, telling you everything you need to know about the presenter and his history, that some people might be upset that less detail about Rogers is found here. Rogers’ devout Christianity (he was also a Presbyterian Minister) is downplayed here but it comes through especially when he explains why he is a vegetarian. I do love it does mention the frustration his crew has with Rogers’ unparalleled decency, there is a hilarious scene involving a bratty terminal ill child who is visiting the set.
I think Rhys was probably the wrong choice, although he’s a perfectly fine actor. There are certain sequences where Lloyd ends up in “the neighborhood of make believe” when he has dreams about his repressed childhood trauma, and these don’t quite work. I do like it that when he travels, they make New York into Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, where he goes across the bridge and ends up in Pittsburgh. Hanks does a decent impression of Rogers, but that’s like playing Abraham Lincoln because he’s so iconic, it’s hard to completely inhabit that role.
Although the documentary is much better, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an enjoyable film featuring good performances from Hanks and Cooper. There is a commentary with Heller and director of photography Jody Lee Lipes, about 17 minutes of deleted scenes, a blooper reel and four featurettes on the disc.