For fans of the late Fred Rogers — though if you’re a fan, you can really only call him Mister Rogers — A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood seems like a setup for a letdown. See, it’s not really Fred’s movie. Yes, Tom Hanks is there to play the gentle, soft-spoken host of the children’s show classic Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968 to 2001), and he inhabits the role with all the friendly persuasion an actor could muster. But you’ll learn more about this saintly enigma, who died of stomach cancer in 2003 at 74, from Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the 2018 documentary that grossed a hefty $22 million and still failed to win an Oscar.
Working from a screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), the gifted director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl; Can You Ever Forgive Me?) puts her focus on Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a disgruntled journalist. How disgruntled? Lloyd actually balks when Esquire assigns him to interview the TV pied piper he dismisses as “a hokey kid-show guy.” Since Lloyd is loosely based on acclaimed writer Tom Junod, who won awards for his reporting on a rapist and an abortion doctor, you can understand his resistance to doing a deep dive into marshmallow.
No matter. Junod’s definitve Mister Rogers profile, “Can You Say . . . Hero?” was published in Esquire in 1998, the year that A Beautiful Day takes place. Like Junod, Lloyd accepts the Rogers assignment thinking he just might penetrate the Rogers bubble of bland. He’s not planning a hatchet job exactly, but it might be a kick to uncover a few flaws in this avatar of benevolent virtue, who was also a Presbyterian minister.
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Instead, Lloyd uncovers his own feet of clay. Despite a loving, supportive wife in Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson, of This Is Us) and an infant son, the workaholic Lloyd has major daddy issues. His father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), is so boorish, needling, and neglectful (he basically disappeared when Lloyd’s mother contracted cancer) that Lloyd starts a fistfight with the old man at a family wedding. Cheers to the talented Rhys, the Welsh actor who won a well-deserved Emmy for playing an undercover Russian spy in The Americans, for bringing nuance and implosive intensity to a role that could have easily slid into cliché.
Lloyd shows up bruised in Pittsburgh, where Mister Rogers lives and tapes his TV show, and instantly recognizes that this hardass journalist from the Big Apple needs some TLC. And that’s the movie — the slow wearing down of a reporter’s cynicism through the inherent decency of, yes, a hokey kid-show guy. You can see the reconciliation coming between Lloyd and his dad from outer space. But what you can’t see, until you let this movie in, is how Hanks and Heller are purveyors of a delicate magic that is damn near irresistible. In the opening scene, Hanks steps onto the re-created, pasteboard set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and begins the ritual. He takes off his street clothes and replaces them with the sneakers and red cardigan sweater that ooze disarming coziness as he sings the title song: “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you/I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.”
The entrance and the song are a huge risk. It’s naive to think that because Hanks and Rogers are both nice guys, there’s no acting required. But Hanks, who captures the man’s precise diction and soothing intonation, quickly moves past imitation to find the nurturing soul that Mister Rogers opens to the world; not just to children, but to skeptics like Lloyd. And also, perhaps, to an audience of nonbelievers. Hanks succeeds triumphantly, gently interrogating Lloyd about his writing, his family, and the anger festering inside him. The scenes between Hanks and Rhys are a duet of withholding that find meaning in the space between words.
Fred is far more successful than Lloyd is at getting answers. The reporter watches Fred at work. He briefly spends time with Fred’s wife, Joanne (a wonderful Maryann Plunkett), and listens to them on the piano. The couple’s two sons are mentioned but nowhere in sight as Fred talks about the challenges of parenthood. And nothing about Fred’s manner changes from what he projects before the camera. What you see is what you get. Even when Fred asks for retakes of a sequence, his tone is firm, never flinty. Too good to be true? Not really. There’s a final shot that I won’t spoil. But in finding Fred alone at the piano, the moment catches a hint of darkness roiling under Fred’s placid surface. You leave this movie with questions about this odd-duck of a humanist, who eased children through the thorny feelings that come with fear, bullying, divorce, and trauma. You also leave grateful for how Hanks and Heller respect the privacy and complexity of a man who knew life was never as simple as it looks. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie that speaks from the heart. Let it in.