For one reason or another, I was very worried when I first heard that Tom Hanks would be playing “Mister” Fred Rogers, especially only a year after the superb documentary Won’t you be my Neighbor? (which I am surprised was not nominated for an Oscar). The great Fred Rogers was someone we all, to some extent, truly took for granted. A soul of pure kindness that everyone would have given anything to have called neighbor, and ended up being the host of one of the greatest children’s programs in TV history (probably second only to Sesame Street). Truly one of a kind, I did not even think someone like Tom Hanks could replicate the aura of Rogers.
Obviously, I was wrong. It is the best Hanks has been in years, even though he is not the true center piece of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. That falls on Lloyd Vogel (Emmy winner Matthew Rhys), a journalist known for writing profiles that seem to always bring the negative out in the subject. When asked to do a piece on heroes, no one wants him to do the profile. No one, that is, except Mr. Rogers. When he mentions it to his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson from the TV show This is Us), she begs her husband, “Please don’t ruin my childhood”.
It does not take long for the viewer to realize Lloyd’s own troubles, as he has a rather rocky (to say the least) relationship with his father Jerry (Oscar winner and always reliable Chris Cooper), resulting in some punches thrown at the beginning of the film (he assures others who see his wounds that it was a softball incident). This part of the plot does teeter a bit towards the mundane, if only because experienced movie goers will know the expected outcome. Thankfully, that does not mean it is not effective at times. This mainly occurs when Lloyd finally begins to open up about his feelings, first with Rogers.
One of the more interesting things of the film is how director Marielle Heller (who was at the helm of 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?) structures it like an actual episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. I found this both effecting and sometimes perplexing. It is how we are introduced to the Lloyd Vogel character (who is based on real life journalist Tom Junod), as Rogers asks us if we know what it means to “forgive” (something all ages need to remember these days). I was okay with the fourth wall breaks that occurred, but some segments seemed almost superfluous, such as Rogers spending a few minutes showing us how a magazine is made.
There is no way for me to continue with the review without talking about Tom Hanks. It must have been truly inevitable that, when the time came for Mr. Rogers to be portrayed on screen, only Hanks could have done so. When looking back, perhaps I was worried about the casting because Hanks does not show much of a physical resemblance to Fred (my expectations can be high at times). Thankfully, I soon realized that did not matter, because the attributes of Mr. Rogers’ character were the crucial part, and Hanks has those in spades. The kindness. The smile. The heart. The unrivaled sense of decency.
There are very few (if any) celebrities who have been labeled as being one of the nicest people ever than Hanks. Think about it: When was the last time you heard Tom Hanks in the headlines for a scandal, or seen in the tabloids? His quality of the “every man” has resonated with him for years, similar to acting icon (and also acclaimed nice guy) James Stewart. This is not to even mention his highly underrated sense of humor (he is one of the funnier guests I have seen on late night talk shows). In a nutshell, my little brother Connor put it best: “When Tom Hanks dies, the world will be sad.”
Parents, the film is a rather soft PG rating. Along with the one brief early fight scene, I counted only a couple of the most minor of swearing, and nothing else. This is the type of film families are perfectly fine with seeing.
The film did not hit me in the feels as much as the documentary Won’t you be my Neighbor? (though few films have done so like that in the last few years), but the lessons are still clear (Rogers clearly is breaking the fourth wall when he asks Lloyd to take one minute to think of all the people who have helped him in life, something the real Rogers did many times). The lesson of everyone needing to give a little kindness. The lesson of how to forgive. The lesson of how (as Rogers says in the film),
“Fame is a four-letter word. What matters is what we do with it.”