Based on a 1998 Esquire article by journalist Tom Junod, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the second film about television entertainer Fred Rogers released in the last two years. With a cast that includes The Americans star Matthew Rhys, the reliably great Chris Cooper, and American icon Tom Hanks, the film is less than the sum of its parts.
Jaded investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) is assigned a 400-word puff piece on one of America’s heroes by his editor at Esquire Magazine, Ellen (Christine Lahti). The hero assigned to Lloyd is Fred Rogers (Hanks), the only hero willing to be interviewed by Lloyd, a journalist with a sour reputation. Prior to leaving for Pittsburgh to interview Fred, Lloyd attends his sister’s wedding where he punches his estranged father (Cooper) in the face and is, in turn, punched in the face by his sister’s new husband (Noah Harpster).
Lloyd arrives in Pittsburgh to potentially expose Fred as a fraud, but Fred disarms Lloyd by asking about his face. Before long, Lloyd reveals that he had a confrontation with his dad, and Fred councils him through the encounter and how to improve his relationship with the man who abandoned him. Lloyd, a new father himself, must decide how he will parent his son, approach his marriage and work, and whether or not to forgive his dad for his misdeeds.
Fred is the sage from the hero’s journey, the movie’s Obi-Wan Kenobi to Lloyd’s restless, impassioned Luke Skywalker. Dependent on a predictable, banal plot and more than one tired screenwriting cliché, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an arduous watch when Hanks’s contented, altruistic Fred Rogers isn’t on screen.
Hanks, a saint-like figure in Hollywood, is the only living actor who could reasonably be cast as Fred Rogers without a second thought. Having watched countless hours of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Hanks easily embodies the role. Regrettably, the film’s most poignant moment, where Rogers is serenaded by a subway train of strangers of all ages, is spoiled in the trailer.
Rhys, meanwhile, works with what little the script gives him. A child abandoned by a substance-abusing father is nearly as tried as star-crossed lovers. Watching Lloyd resist his cynical nature would be rewarding had the same tale not been told hundreds of times. Even with Can You Ever Forgive Me? director Marielle Heller at the helm, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood can’t pierce the Oscar conversation it desperately aspires to.
A year after its release, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary feature about Fred Rogers, remains the sacred text about the venerated children’s entertainer. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, despite convincing work from Hanks, is no match for the authenticate Mister Rogers experience.