‘Neighborhood’ is crowd-pleasing
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” isn’t a Fred Rogers biofilm.
For that audiences should turn to the 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” and they won’t be disappointed.
Instead, it’s a movie about how the lessons Rogers shared with young children for decades on PBS’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” also can benefit those old enough to have children, or grandchildren for that matter.
If anything, Rogers is a supporting player here. Matthew Rhys definitely has more screen time than Tom Hanks, who plays Rogers. If the TV host had been African-American, the movie would be criticized for relying on the “magical negro” trope, a character whose primary reason for existence is to educate and improve the life of the movie’s white male protagonist.
That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with “Beautiful Day”; it’s an affecting, crowd-pleasing drama that is perfect holiday option for moviegoers who don’t care about icy animated fare.
The script is based on the true story of Tom Juonod, an Esquire writer who wrote a profile on Rogers in the late ’90s for an issue devoted to “Heroes.” The writer’s name has been changed to Lloyd Vogel (Rhys), but the set up is the same.
Vogel is a writer with a reputation for profiles hated by their subjects, and the cynical scribe’s demeanor couldn’t be more at odds with Rogers’ gentle kindness. Vogel also is a new dad with an estranged relationship with his own father (Chris Cooper), who abandoned the family when his wife was dying and wasn’t much of a parent before that.
Workaholic Vogel is in danger of repeating at least some of the sins of his father when he travels to Pittsburgh to interview a seemingly too-good-to-be true children’s host that he’s convinced has to have a dark side.
As his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) tells him before he leaves, “Don’t ruin my childhood.”
Vogel’s interactions with Rogers start to change the writer’s outlook in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, including a reconnection with his father that still remains tense, but it’s a dramatic improvement over their first scene together, which ends in a fist fight.
Director Marielle Heller’s deft handling of the scenes where Rogers is nowhere to be scene — Vogel and his wife, Vogel and his father — anchor the film and keep it from lapsing into domestic drama cliches. Cooper has built a career out of playing disappointing patriarchs. his Jerry Vogel adds to that list while feeling distinctive from his past portrayals.
Hanks doesn’t particularly look like Rogers, but he inhabits the persona we associate with the man. The movie argues that what viewers saw on camera was the same man people met off-camera, so the performance doesn’t really allow for a peak behind the curtain. There is no curtain.
However, one of the best scenes is when Vogel refers to Rogers as “a saint” to Rogers’ wife (Maryann Plunkett). She bristles at the characterization because it implies her husband is doing something others can’t do. And there is a tiny hint at the end of the movie that Rogers isn’t always as cheery as he presents himself.
Hanks doesn’t let his portrayal turn into mimicry, but it’s also not the kind of role that lends itself to the accolades actors often get when playing famous characters.
Mister Rogers became famous as a low-key, calming presence surrounded by bigger, louder children’s entertainment. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” takes a similar approach, a simple, comforting tale among bigger, flashier blockbusters.