A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood premiered back in September at the Toronto International Film Festival but of course it’s finally arriving just in time for Thanksgiving. No other holiday imbues the wholesome values long-championed by iconic children’s TV host Fred Rogers. In a less obvious way, the release date also serves as reminder to express gratitude for a very special person: Tom Hanks, the only living actor who, like Mister Rogers himself, owns a place in the hearts of all Americans. Nobody else on Earth could have played this cherished man, let alone embody his kind spirit.
His effortless ability to step into Rogers’ shoes — or, rather comfy pair of sneakers — is the big reason this enchanting film will make even ice-veined cynics develop a sudden case of the sniffles. Given that we’ve all grown up on Big, Forrest Gump and Toy Story, this ace transformation is hardly a surprise and will surely lead to an Oscar nomination. Still, the lesson of the day is that life is full of surprises. Example? A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not actually about Mister Rogers.
Director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) sets up the premise in the gleeful opening sequence, which is presented as an episode of the classic TV favorite Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. First a little red cable car chugs around the diorama town of the show’s credits. A smiling Hanks then strolls through the door, puts on a sweater, changes those shoes, sings a few familiar lyrics and introduces audiences to his “new friend.” His name is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a talented albeit misanthropic NYC Esquire magazine journalist assigned to do a profile on Rogers for an upcoming “heroes” issue. (Vogel = Tom Junod, who wrote said article in 1998.)
If Rogers is the kind of guy who opens doors, then Lloyd is the kind of guy who shuts them. He does it metaphorically to his wife whom he treats as an after-thought (played by This Is Us’ Susan Kelechi Watson, who responds to his skepticism about his new subject by saying “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”) He does it to his editor (Christine Lahti), though she’s paying him big bucks to fly to the local PBS affiliate set in Pittsburgh and write a measly 400-word puff piece. He does it to his brittle estranged dad (Chris Cooper), now ailing and desperate to make amends for time lost. He also does it literally to Rogers himself when the host gently prods him mid-interview about his shaky personal life.
The prickly Lloyd is awfully hard to root for, and he doesn’t come around easily. That’s why the intermittent presence of Rogers (sorry, I can’t refer to him as “Fred”) is a welcome ray of light. Though their interactions are strictly professional at first, Rogers’ empathy for Lloyd’s problems soon overwhelms the interviews and an unlikely bond starts to form. Hanks uses the icon’s most publicly engrained traits — the warm half-smiles, the soft-spoken dialect that unspools at a deliberate pace — to offer sage-yet-nonjudgmental advice and wisdom at the ready. One nugget: “Fame is a four-letter word like tape or zoom or face. What matters is what you do with it.”
Is he for real? Lloyd reluctantly takes his assignment determined to reveal the man behind the cardigans, as a “hokey” children’s host and puppeteer couldn’t possibly be this pure when the cameras are turned off. He’s proven wrong in a hurry. Rogers does indeed have a genuine and innate curiosity and care for other people. In the film’s most charming scene, he’s delighted when a group of kids spot him on a New York City subway car and spontaneously belt out “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood . . .” This is not an ego-stroking, I-just-got-recognized reaction; he just takes pride in knowing that his message of goodwill has spread. At least, that’s how Hanks plays him. We never do glean insight into Rogers’ psyche or background, even though he’s the more fascinating of the two men. A solo glimpse of him banging on the keys on a low end of a piano must suffice. (In that sense, the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be Neighbor? would make for a splendid supplemental material.)
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was originally titled You Are My Friend. I choose to think it was switched because Rogers isn’t so much a pal as he is a therapist/mentor/guardian angel extoling the virtues of forgiveness. In fact, his relationship with Lloyd represents all the people he touched during his 33 amazing years on the air. (He died of cancer in 2003). If his aura and attitude were just cheap sentiment, then we wouldn’t continue to miss him and wonder how he’d guide us through the world today. Thanks to this wonderful film, he’s still teaching us.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens in theaters on Friday, November 22